Most litigation happens in two venues: the courtroom, and the press house. A company can suffer if they win the former but lose the latter.
Legal communications, when done right, works alongside the storytelling of the case, providing key players in national and local media with an understanding of the narrative and access to the legal minds who are shaping the case.
Jonathan Beaton is doing it right, operating a small but mighty legal communications shop that focuses on earned media, strategic communications and the crucial media surrounding a case. Beaton worked for years as a radio and broadcast journalist, and uses that vantage point from behind the news desk to work closely with reporters in a respectful and productive way.
“The five years I spent in news was imperative to my development as a legal PR specialist,” says Beaton. He has long-standing relationships with legal journalists, and also knows how to quickly develop trust with reporters on specific beats.
Beaton founded Inside Advantage PR, which is based in Orlando but operates nationally, to be the go-to firm for law firms seeking coveted Tier 1 press hits.
“We're a no BS media relations agency,” says Beaton. “We get in the trenches with the media and get the job done. Doesn't matter if it's litigating a high-profile case in the press, securing cable TV news hits, thought leadership op-eds or a feature piece in the Sunday paper. We get results.”
Lawdragon: Tell us about your work doing PR for law firms.
Jonathan Beaton: I specifically focus on strategic communications, earned media and litigation PR. I've worked with one-person shops to Big Law and everything in between. Most of all, I enjoy working with law firms that have an active focus on using the press as a tool for getting their story told right the first time. I'm a hands-on, old school PR guy. By maintaining and consistently developing real relationships with the nation's top legal reporters and editors, I’ve been able to secure media placements that have a measurable impact on clients’ practices. In layman's terms I'm a glorified conduit to the press.
LD: How did you first get into this work?
JB: I spent five years as a local and national broadcast journalist for outlets like ABC News and the BBC. Those years were action packed and allowed me to see how newsrooms run and how their operations work. Little did I know but getting that behind-the-scenes knowledge prepared me for what I do today. It's almost impossible to be an effective PR rep for a law firm without having a solid knowledge of how newsrooms work, who gets covered and ultimately how the final product is packaged.
I started as a cub radio reporter at WDBO in Orlando, Fla. It was a great station with a NewsTalk format that forced me to be on my toes. Taught me a lot about storytelling and how the news business works. I reported, anchored and hosted for several years before moving on to report for the BBC, ABC News and CBS (WPEC).
LD: What do you like about working with lawyers?
JB: I love working with lawyers. They're straight shooters who don't have time for PR jargon or fluff. My agency is results driven and works tirelessly to produce consistent and measurable results. Law firms have interesting cases, thought leadership opportunities abound and people who work hard to set the record straight in the court. It's our job to do it in the press. I think it's a winning combo.
Learn to write tight. Never pitch a reporter copy more than 50 words in an email.
LD: What part of your work do you find the most satisfying or enjoyable?
JB: I've worked through multiple firm mergers, massive partner exits in Big Law and been the media spokesperson for high profile cases and trials. Overall, I take the most interest and pride in achieving media results during quieter times. Meaning, I love placing firms and partners in the spotlight for achievements, legacies and careers. We've been able to facilitate this specifically in places like the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and the New York Times.
LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in legal communications these days?
JB: I see a need for earned media coverage in the mainstream outlets. Earned media, meaning news stories written by real journalists, often gets overlooked by the PR industry. That's an issue for law firms. There's so much opportunity in the traditional mainstream press where real journalists are writing quality stories. Far too many PR firms grab onto low hanging fruit blogs or pay to play "sponsored content" as opposed to fostering meaningful relationships with members of the press.
LD: Can you describe a recent matter that you’ve handled to give us a sense of your work?
JB: Couple of things come to mind. First, we successfully launched a recent PR push into local and national markets for a mid-size American firm. The client had a case going to trial and needed the media on their side. We consistently kept in contact with reporters, giving our facts, securing interviews and most importantly, making sure there was a foundation of trust between ourselves and the media. By being personable, communicative and friendly with the press, we were able to effectively direct the narrative until the case settled.
As I mentioned, my favorite moments in legal PR come in the less chaotic times. When things calm down a bit from news of the day, I love to build and foment relationships between the firm's partners and the reporters who cover law. This is helpful in so many ways. It provides both sides the opportunity to get to know one another and establishes the basis of a friendly professional relationship. Because of these introductions and relationships built, we've seen the press favor our side with consistency.
Furthermore, those contacts help so much for building the partner and firm's brand. Placing feature pieces in top tier news outlets is critical and those are the reporters to do it. We've placed dozens of staff members, partners and firms throughout the press with great success, simply through effective copywriting, relationships and storytelling.
LD: What were the key challenges of successfully handling the PR around that case?
JB: I sound like a broken record but it almost always comes down to the relationships you have with the press. The other side is not only key but vital for effective PR to work. The biggest challenge for me in regards to the court case was quickly establishing relationships with local press. Yes, national press is usually considered the most important, but at the local level for high profile cases and trials, the reporters are extremely important to the narrative. After all, they'll be the ones in the courtroom all day long using social media, framing their stories for a tight deadline, etc. It's imperative for the PR specialist to get to know those reporters fast and help direct their stories.
When it comes to feature pieces, the biggest challenge is getting partners and staff members to speak about their experiences and do a little humble bragging. Sometimes I have to dig it out of them!
LD: What’s the impact on the lawyers, after you secure some great press like that?
JB: It's all about the story. The story paints a picture of the lawyer, the firm and overall brand. When someone Googles you or the firm, what do you want them to see? We seek to capture vivid narratives and engaging stories for firms of all sizes. It's really the most fun I have on the job.
I love working with lawyers. They're straight shooters who don't have time for PR jargon or fluff.
LD: What lessons have you taken away from this work?
JB: The lesson is be a human. Your job as outside legal PR is to help the in-house team with their earned media results, relationships with the press and giving them a storytelling edge. That's it. Listen to the firm and to the reporters. Be active. Set up calls and introductions. Take advantage of this post-pandemic world and start getting lunches and drinks with media. It's pretty simple. Just be a human.
LD: Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards this type of career?
JB: University really didn't do much for me outside of making new friends, writing for the school's newspaper and hosting a show on the campus radio station. I'm a radio and newspaper nerd so I loved being hands on with writing and broadcasting at 18 years old. I often skipped class to write, work at the radio station or read in the library. The classroom held little appeal.
LD: Is this the type of job you imagined yourself having when you were a student?
JB: Since the Atlanta Braves haven't phoned me to play first base I suppose I'm stuck here. All kidding aside, I knew by high school I was going into journalism/communications. Public relations ended up being a sensible while also exciting transition from news. I’m grateful to still enjoy the craft.
LD: Was there a moment after opening your shop that you thought, this is really going to work?
JB: A big turning point for me was shortly after I opened my shop. I signed a client out of South Florida, a one-attorney securities firm with a paralegal. While a great legal counselor, the attorney did not have a white shoe background or resume. But within weeks we were getting him placed on CNBC's Squawk on the Street, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. His brand shot through the roof. We worked together on press for specific SEC cases, litigation efforts, etc. That first legal client showed me how effective quality legal PR can be. It opened my eyes to a world largely underserved by the PR community.
LD: What advice do you have now for current students or young professionals who want to have a career in legal PR?
JB: Pay attention to the news and how it's gathered. Get on Twitter to follow and engage with reporters, editors and producers. Search for evergreen placement opportunities and track news of the day trends. Learn to write tight. Never pitch a reporter copy more than 50 words in an email. Also – never ever mail merge or “spray and pray.” Send targeted press releases and pitches to individual reporters.
LD: Did you have mentors during your time in journalism that taught you things you still use today?
JB: Several. Specifically, working with veteran reporters at Florida radio and TV station WDBO and WPEC played a tremendous influence. I learned how to craft a story, get the facts right and get the job done on deadline. Most importantly, it showed me how a narrative is crafted – long before reaching the newsroom.
LD: How has legal PR changed since you first got in the game?
JB: Much larger emphasis on AI these days when it comes to pitching media. Most PR firms use software to basically spam reporters with their pitches. They'll send out tens of thousands a day depending on the firm. It's a pretty disgusting practice and leads to lack of trust. Fortunately, if you're one of the few good ones who still treats the media with a semblance of care and respect, you'll gain their favor.
LD: Is there a matter or client in your career that stands out as a “favorite” or one that is more memorable for certain reasons?
JB: Kind of quirky and interesting but I once got a partner at a Manhattan law firm on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for his service on a Wikipedia board. Topic was one of his hobbies. He and his firm were talked about at great length too. Phenomenal branding opportunity that lives forever on Google.
It's all about the story. The story paints a picture of the lawyer, the firm and overall brand. When someone Googles you or the firm, what do you want them to see?
LD: How would you describe your professional style or philosophy?
JB: I'm a no-nonsense guy who's crafted a niche in earned media for law. I get to write, pitch and interact with my press pals frequently. I don't overcomplicate things nor do I hide the football like most PR flaks. The public relations industry as a whole is littered with fake business. Billing at ridiculous rates and overwhelming the client with mountains of "strategy" and "messaging documents” instead of doing actual media relations work. Earned media is difficult to attain but far more satisfying for myself and the client. In my area I need to be personable, responsive and creative. And at the end of the day I'm whatever the client and reporter needs me to be.
LD: Do you have any negative experiences in advising lawyers that taught you new approaches, or caused you to reconsider working with lawyers?
JB: I can usually get a pretty good idea of whether it's a good fit or not. I’ve had to part ways with lawyers/firms that don’t respect the (after hours) rule of an email is almost always better than a call.
The only firms I won’t work with again are ones that aren't professional or abuse the "my cell is always on" policy. Sometimes a 4am call is necessary and other times it isn't. Overall, I've been incredibly fortunate to work with great firms past and present.
LD: What advice would you give potential clients in terms of how to most productively work with a communications team?
JB: One hundred percent communication. Being able to have fluid conversations over email, Slack, calls, etc., is vital to proper PR. The news moves fast and so do we.
LD: Are there any innovations in the space that have your focus?
JB: Fintech, blockchain, ChatGPT, AI, remote work – these are all things we need to be engaged with, specifically in the public view. But these topics inspire innovation, better work/life balance and foster a better firm. And for a PR, it most importantly presents fantastic story opportunities in the press.
LD: Why did you decide to start your own shop rather than join a larger PR agency?
JB: Most of the PR industry is stuck in the bronze age. Sending out – spamming – stale press releases to thousands of helpless reporters. I knew early on I wanted to run a hands-on shop that focuses on powerful story placement. The most difficult part of PR is earned media and that's all I do. I'd rather embrace the most vital and important aspect of my field as opposed to run away from it.
LD: What is the biggest challenge in what you do?
JB: The media is constantly changing. Reporters change their beats, leave news outlets, start new publications, etc. Because of this it's imperative to stay on top of industry developments. In today's world being connected to the media on Twitter, Slack and email is far more important than ever before.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
JB: Tennis, golf, biking, racquetball and hiking are big for me. I also love to travel and can be often found backpacking in Latin America for my holidays.
LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the law?
JB: Michael Clayton is excellent.
LD: If not for legal PR, what would you be doing now?
JB: Finding a way to monetize my love of golf or baseball.