Public Positions and the Press

Karen Korr
San Diego County Bar Association

Over the last year or so, the San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA) has been talking a lot about what it is we talk about - both within our membership and what we put out there in the world related to current events and law-related issues.  In a recent Communicators Talk story,  Brandon Vogel (New York State Bar) expertly covered a NABE panel on when bars are taking public positions and what informs their decisions. His story can be found here.

Presumably, bar leaders in board rooms across the country are having the same conversations that we are having in San Diego - when do we issue a public statement and what is the right protocol?  We have dedicated much time to determining what is within our purview, and what matters rise to a level where we want to issue a public position statement.  One major consideration in our process has been whether the absence of a position statement from the SDCBA on certain matters is in and of itself making a statement for the Association.  Taking leadership on significant issues is important to the SDCBA, and so we've worked long and hard with a board-level committee to create what we believe is a rock-solid yet malleable policy to guide what it is we will speak to publicly. 

But public positions only have an impact if they are seen by the public - and often that only happens when the statement is picked up by the press.  In my experience, lawyers are very deliberate with their words, and in the bar association world, messaging is decided by committees,that often take several days to convene, and then messaging is reviewed and approved by other committees that also must be convened.  That's awesome - it means that your press statement will be well-thought out and truly reflective of a cross-section of the bar's leadership.  But it also means that it's not likely to be read outside of your organization.  

Through trial, error and considerable discussion, we've learned that if we want our words to be most effective, we need to strike while the proverbial iron is hot.  We don't need to be the first group to speak to something, but our message is nullified if we are the last bar association or legal organization to add our voice to a particular issue.  We've also learned that traditional bar policies don't always work when it's press time - a reporter at a daily publication with a 4 p.m. deadline isn't going to wait for a committee of six to meet tomorrow for an hour, draft a statement, and run it by another committee of 6 three days later for approval.  

As such, our policy includes special considerations for media.  For example,  matters that are subject to a news cycle in order to be relevant require a subset (5 out of 7 members)  of our Public Policy Advisory Group  (PPAG) to convene within 24 hours, and positions are then reviewed by our Executive Committee.  Such matters are reviewed and finalized within 72 hours under our policy.

However, if we've received a request for comment from the press - or have been asked if the Bar has a position on a particular topic - we form a rapid response team, comprised of only two members of PPAG and our President (or his/her designee), and our response is finalized within 2 hours.  Media requests for bar positions are fist screened by our Executive Director and CEO to determine whether or not the request falls within the confines of our policy, eliminating a time hurdle of involving a volunteer committee at the front end. 

Under our policy, the press statement itself can be drafted by any PPAG member, myself, or our Executive Director, but will only be delivered by the President or a spokesperson that they have designated.  

With clear guidelines on when and how we speak, we also emphasize some important general media guidelines with our leaders: 1) Media statements should be short - we don't need to share all of our thoughts on a matter, just what is relevant to the issue at hand and how it relates to the Association's goals and mission.  2) Every sentence in our statement needs to be be treated as if it were an individual quote - a media outlet may choose to use just a piece of our statement, so every part should be impactful.  3)We can speak to anything and everything, but we shouldn't do it all at the same time.  Statements need to cover only the issue at hand.  And, as a reporter friend shared with me at lunch recently, it isn't advisable to send more than one statement in the same day - or even the same week if possible. 

While media relations is something that we've been doing for years, we're taking positions and addressing law-related issues at an accelerated pace lately, and so we're still learning a bit as we go.  If you have a policy on public positions or some insights on how your bar is handling requests, please share them with me.  If you would like to review our policy and/or recent statements by the SDCBA, please visit www.sdcba.org/advocacy.