Think Like a Lawyer, Write Like a Journalist

Public affairs professionals who seek to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests would be wise to think like a lawyer and write like a journalist, activating both the right and left sides of their brains.

Public affairs professionals who seek to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests would be wise to think like a lawyer and write like a journalist, activating both the right and left sides of their brains.

Legal writing can be, for lack of a better description, legalese – stilted, ponderous and opaque. However, behind all that seeming pomposity is a clear way of thinking centered on facts, corroborated evidence and credible sources.

Writing for general public consumption, as journalists do, requires a more comfortable, inclusive style, using words that are commonly understood, phrases that paint pictures and sentences that convey a point with clarity.

The best of both worlds is when writers think like lawyers and write like journalists. Thinking like a lawyer and writing like a journalist is an example of activating both the left and right sides of the brain. This is how public affairs professionals should communicate.

Thinking like a lawyer doesn’t have to crimp your writing or speaking style. Thinking like a lawyer can add order and authority to what you write. Thinking like a lawyer can narrow the focus of what you write and sharpen your key messages. Thinking like a lawyer can make your argument more believable and persuasive.

Training to become a lawyer involves learning how to conduct research, interpret the law, build a case and defend an interest. Those can be valuable insights for public affairs professionals as they write advocacy pieces, op-eds and testimony that seek to inform and persuade.

A key principle in legal thinking is establishing a solid foundation for assertions. Legal thought can be fairly portrayed as rational, logical and linear. Facts aren’t Christmas tree ornaments; they are building blocks. Arraying facts in support of a position diminishes ambiguity, provides clarity and creates confidence in what’s being asserted. This is exactly the job description of public affairs professionals. 

Public affairs professionals don’t do their job in front of judges. But they in effect do their jobs in front of juries that may be neighborhood associations, interest groups or townhall meeting audiences. Orderly presentations conveyed in plainspoken language and accompanied by credible written or visual evidence can convince juries in a courtroom – and “juries” anywhere else.

Another useful trait of legal training is understanding the value of dialogue and learning by listening. This is must-have skill for successful public affairs professionals.

Legal training has drawbacks for communicating broadly. Lawyers tend to downplay emotive forces, overlook creative options and ignore inspirational themes. Those may have little place in a courtroom, but they have a definite place in the court of public opinion. In their writing, journalists report on topics evoking emotional and inspirational responses. They look for creative way to tell their stories. 

There are lawyers who are good writers and effective speakers. They understand the powerful combination of legal thinking and journalistic writing. Public affairs professionals should emulate that same combination to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.


Add GPS to Your Communication Channel

You need a GPS system to help your target audience find your content.

You need a GPS system to help your target audience find your content.

Self-publishing your content gives you control over your communications channel, but doesn't equate to access to it by your target audience.

There is great value in self-publishing. It puts your content out there. But your website exists in an ocean of other websites and won't be discovered without help. You need a GPS system to go along with your communication channel.

Guiding people to your website requires strategy on how to reach your target audience. That strategy should be supported by solid research indicating where your target audience looks for information and who they trust as a guide.

Strategies can range from paid media – Google ads, promoted Facebook and Twitter posts, billboards – to earned media through clever events, engaging interviews and story pitches.  Employees can be communications channel ambassadors, giving your content visibility from a reliable source. The key is keeping your website URL forward so people know it exists and give it a click. Don’t forget your own digital channels. Weather it’s an email blast or a tweet, know where your customers are following you and use those channels to connect with them. 

This is especially critical for issue managers who increasingly find themselves combatting inaccurate information spread by opponents. You need well documented content that people can find as they try to make up their mind about the issue. But they won't see your content unless you show them the way and provide assurances the trip will be worth it.

A lot of time and energy is spent on creating the right content, but too little time is devoted to getting the right people to see that content. This is a form of media amnesia, in which people revel in Marshall McLuhan's famous maxim "The medium is the message." It does not discount the value of your own medium to insist that it be coupled with effective outreach to your intended audience.

Issue managers can be drowned in a cascading news story. One of their most important lifelines is a well designed, well packaged website with credible information. Once you prepare that content, the real challenge is to make sure it is seen. That's when a GPS system that leads your audience to your content becomes as important as the content itself.

Don Tuite, editor of Electronic Design, said it best in an article about his looming retirement: "In the end, the channel is irrelevant without a transmitter (me) and a receiver to direct its content to (that’s you), and nothing I write has any meaning unless it reaches you and reduces your personal entropy on the topic I’m writing about."

Training for a Marathon Issue

Most issues management advice centers on dealing with crisis, but most issues drag on for years, requiring strategies for a marathon, not a sprint.

Training for a marathon involves training for different slices of the race. How you run the first five miles is a lot different than how you run the last five. There is a reason elite marathon runners include sprinting in their training regimen.

Translating that thought into the context of managing an issue means having a long-term objective, as well as shorter-term objectives. You also may need one or more crisis plans for that mid-race leg cramp.

Marathon issues management plans apply to long-term projects that take years to complete and to complex, contentious issues that take time to resolve, such as the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage. 

Protracted issues and long lead-time projects face many ups and downs, which can occur because of economic cycles or catalytic events. There also is give-and-take as each side unleashes its strategy, which calls for a response. Managing an issue in this environment demands more than an A to B plan.

Social Media and Politics

Social media was a critical component in Barack Obama's successful presidential bid in 2008. Now Republicans, independents and other political movements have caught up, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

One reason is that in the last two years social media has become much more mainstream, even among older adults.

Another is the confluence of the medium and the message. "The Internet is a medium for challengers," says Republican digital media consultant Patrick Ruffini. "It's a medium to disrupt the existing power structure."

Temporary Special-Purpose Websites a Great Tool

Sometimes its best to bring in the specialty team.

Public information outreach efforts, such as those necessary to explain community development or public finance issues, often must stand alone, away from the crowd, when competing for mindshare. But, for example, a government agency’s or a nonprofit’s website may not be robust enough to handle a powerful storytelling video, or may be too cluttered for visitors to easily find information.

Temporary, and not so temporary, single-issue websites are a great way for organizations to manage a hot-button issue. An organization’s existing multi-purpose site may not be flexible to enough fit immediate needs – despite the best of intentions of the PR team and the IT department.