Journalism departments in law firms social media Earlier this year I wrote about the power large law firms have to leverage their brand to create media outlets online so as to bypass traditional media. The point being that with large law firms paying big dollars for syndication of content, advertising, PR, and communications, it’s only a matter of time until we see law firms creating their own online media outlets. Last week digital marketing executive and author, Mitch Joel, asked ‘Will A Brands Next Big Move Be A Journalism Department?’ Joel’s point is that while advertising and traditional marketing have their place, it’s all about relevant content that resonates with your target audience that’s everything in today’s social media world. Traditional marketing content rarely connects with your audience, per Joel. Why?

Because it’s really just marketing material that is thinly veiled as content, and it’s quickly becoming the kind of one-sided content that turns people off. What makes great content spread is how unique and inspiring the message is, not in how it slants into a direction that ultimately positions your company as the only one to buy from.

Rather than look at your firm’s lawyers as creators of content (articles, alerts, email newsletters, blogs offering little more than legal summaries), Joel might suggest looking to citizen journalists for your law firm. Citizen Journalists who could be your lawyers (blogging) or journalism professionals.

Maybe citizen journalists are the best marketers that a brand could ever ask for, and maybe, Geoff Livingston (presenting at Webcom Montreal) is right that the problem with content marketing is the “marketing” part. Instead of plopping Social Media into your communications or marketing department, why not start a journalism department (or start off in a more humble way by hiring a journalist part-time to write content that your organization will publish)?

What could these citizen journalists do for your law firm per Joel?

  • They could write articles about the industry you serve without slanting the piece to favor your brand (this would give you credibility and build trust).
  • They could become valuable by commenting and adding more content in the many other primary spaces for Social Media that people in your industry follow.
  • They could interview the industry leaders for you.
  • They could add a layer of credibility to the content you’re publishing, because you’re very clear in your disclosures that this journalist’s role is not to write favorable content about the company, but to write great content about the industry you serve.

I’m not talking of having a journalist working for your firm as a writer kicking out the stuff in-house counsel, the press, and other practicing lawyers have grown all to sick of. That would be missing the point per Joel.

The idea here is to start creating content that is both valuable and needed. The idea here is to see if a tactic like this could lead to an entire department of journalists that are publishing the most relevant and interesting stories about the industry you serve. It’s about becoming the de facto recognized authority for your industry. It’s about adding so much value that your clients (and potential clients) need you in their lives because the insights and information that you’re providing are so valuable. The challenge (of course) will be in doing this in an honest and credible way. Marketers don’t have a strong history of being able to pull this sort of stuff off, because we just can’t help ourselves but to push our own wares in the moment of truth (which is sad). The only way this will work is if the brand truly does let the journalist be an actual journalist (instead of a corporate shill).

No question we’re already seeing this trend among savvy lawyers and law firms. We’ve come to know the best law blogs as those publishing relevant and interesting insight and commentary for the industry served by the blogging lawyer.

The result being that the blogging lawyer has become a de facto recognized authority in their field. An authority status that has lead to seven figure annual revenue from business developed by the lawyer through relationships gained through blogging.

Multiple times a week I am meeting professionals with a journalism background who have begun working in law firms. Law firm Chief Marketing Officers and Marketing Directors are realizing it’s not the legal content of old that’s going to resonate with their target audience today. They know that journalists may be better equipped to take their law firms into the social media age.

My company, LexBlog, has launched numerous custom social media solutions, including recently launched, China Debate, which covers the latest in Chinese business, policy, and politics, for clients looking to publish relevant and interesting stories about the industry segments they serve.

We have more coming, including one for a large state bar association, and one for an international network of legal professionals. All of the custom social media solutions developed and produced by LexBlog involve a journalism component.

I’m in agreement with Joel that ‘Brand Journalism,’ as he describes the concept is a huge and interesting opportunity. Especially for law firms.

Blogs, once considered a fad by many, aren’t going anywhere. They’re being read by almost half of Americans. They’re becoming one in the same with mainstream media. And we can only expect the popularity of blogs to rise.

That’s the word from a new report from eMarketer released last week titled, The Blogosphere – Colliding With Social And Mainstream Media, the details of which I discussed in a post last week. The discussion that’s ensued following the report among the blogging, marketing, public relations, and publishing community has only reinforced the reports findings.

Take for example journalist and author Mitch Joel’s post this morning that ‘The Future Of Blogging Might Surprise You.’

Key take away’s from Joel:

  • Blogs are (and will become) a mainstream media platform. A blog is the glory of a personal voice – warts and all. That is why people are gravitating toward them. Deep down, we want companies to speak our language. We’re tired of jargon. We’re zoning out when we hear phrases like ‘best of breed’ or ‘end to end solution.’ We want to know that business cares about us and treasures our loyalty. We want more… and we’re starting with a conversation that has a human voice behind it … warts and all.
  • Blogs are becoming almost indecipherable from a mass media news website. Blogs with broad reach – whether media blogs, corporate blogs or influential technology or celebrity blogs – are creating a culture in which blogging is accepted as an integral part of the media landscape.
  • From a personal journaling platform in 1997 to a full-on publishing platform, the transformation of blogs over the past few years can be best summed up in one word: astounding. It’s a profound shift in how we write, read, contribute and distribute the published word. Blogs are no longer the black sheep of publishing. ‘The New York Times operates at least 50 public-facing blogs,’ the Blogosphere report says. ‘These blogs are intertwined with the paper’s regular coverage. Readers are routinely redirected from the main site to the blogs and back again. There is a near total fluidity between the traditional coverage and the blog posts.’
  • The true growth of blogging is not coming from individuals using this empowered publishing platform to share their insights with the world. The credibility and growth from blogs moving forward seems to be coming from the mainstream media’s desire to have a cheaper, faster and near-real-time platform to distribute their content.

Lawyers and law firms who believe social media success lies in the use of Facebook, Twitter, and social networking sites may want to reconsider. Blogs, which gave rise to social media, remain an integral, if not the leading form of social media for professionals looking for their insight and commentary to become part of and disseminated via media channels.

For lawyers and law firms who think they’re late to the blogging table, worry not. Sure, there were early adopters who lead the way on blogging. But all the last seven or eight years of blogging has proven is that blogs are here to stay, that they are widely read, and that they’re becoming indistinguishable from mainstream media. Others have proven the concept for you.

We’re just scratching the surface of what social media can do for lawyers and law firms. But rather than learn how to harness this powerful relationship building tool, one with its roots in traditional client development, I’m finding some lawyers and law firms would rather pay to have someone else participate in social media for them.

It’s called ghostblogging. Having someone you pay, whether they work at your firm or elsewhere, blog on your behalf. You also pay the ghosts to post on your behalf on Twitter, Facebook, and where have you.

Mitch Joel cites an article in February’s Entrepreneur Magazine as an example of this burgeoning industry of ghostblogging.

As a young industry, ghostblogging has no best practices or trade organization. Some practitioners write blogs of a paragraph or two, others 250 to 300 words, but rarely longer. This is the Internet, don’t forget. Attn spans r short. Writers charge by the blog or tweet and juggle half-a-dozen clients or more. Some ghostbloggers prefer the loftier title ‘social media consultant.’ The best are careful to plant key search-engine words into their posts, which will raise a company’s web-search ranking.

Yesterday I saw a press release from a law firm SEO (search engine optimization) company labeled something like ‘Blogging 1-2-3.’ The implication being that blogging is all about high search engine rankings and with the advertisers help in identifying and blogging the right words, your law firm will soon rise to the the top of the search engines.

Fortunately there are those like communications specialist Shel Holtz, quoted in the Entrepreneur Magazine article, who see the utter failure of ghostblogging.

Ghostblogging is a horrible thing. I’m a huge fan of transparency. My advice to executives is: If you don’t take the time to write yourself, find another channel of communication.

Joel addresses the response I’ve heard from some law firms. ‘We’ve always had other lawyers and staff people write for leading lawyers in the firm. Ghostwriting, ghostblogging, it’s all one in the same.’

I’m being naive (I know), people will say, ‘someone writes the speech for the President’ or ‘if people like it and connect to the content, who cares who writes it?’ I dunno, I do. People have lost faith in marketing (just like they have lost faith in those who serve the public office and celebrities). We allow things that shouldn’t be… to be. Saying that ghostwriters have been around for years doesn’t make it right or authentic. Times have changed, and these platforms are (or should be) celebrated for the human and real side. Can you imagine that some Blogs, Twitter and Facebook feeds that you follow are not the real person, but the musings of someone else who simply interviewed the person you thought that you were following? Sure, there’s a place for ghostwriters, but maybe Social Media isn’t one of them?

Maybe there’s a place for ghostwriters at law firms. Associates and staff people can write articles, email newsletters, and alerts. Ghostwriters may even write chapters in books for a rainmaking partner.

But the very essence of social media precludes ghostwriting. Social media is not about producing content. Social media is about engaging others so as to build and nurture meaningful relationships. Engagement that requires listening to your audience and offering value to the conversation.

Sure, it’s going to take a little time and practice for you as a lawyer to learn the art of social media. That’s okay. You’ve taken the time to learn the skills critical to your success before. Do it again here. It’s required.