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PR Perspectives: Navigating UK And US Legal PR Differences

Ben Finnis and Elizabeth Rincon | 20.03.2024

As the importance of law firm public relations continues to grow and the role of communications teams evolves, in this Expert Analysis series PR professionals discuss lawyer media relations, reputation management and more.

At first glance, the differences between legal public relations in the U.K. and U.S. may seem negligible: After all, they are both English-speaking countries with common law legal systems and historical ties.

However, PR requires a deep understanding of a region’s cultural and media nuances, as well as complex legal issues.

Despite the similarities between the two countries, these factors combine to create two distinct PR landscapes for U.K. firms and their communications teams to navigate. 

Navigating Different Landscapes

News values are the benchmarks against which journalists measure the value of potential story angles. Among them is proximity, or a story’s connection to an audience’s location and interests.

Emphasizing these connections requires PR professionals to stay close to the regional media landscapes, audiences and topics with which they work.

While international news and culture have never been more accessible, PR professionals still are most effective when they are on the ground.

This is especially important for U.K. firms and PR professionals to keep in mind as they navigate the U.S. market. The operations and principles that underpin the U.S. and U.K.’s legal systems are vastly different, and they can be referred to as two countries separated by a common law.

Obvious examples include the U.S.’ codified constitution and the U.K.’s three separate legal systems split between the home nations. They also present different PR opportunities: U.S. Supreme Court rulings, for example, offer high-profile opportunities for attorney thought leadership.

Naturally, U.K.-based PR professionals understand the British system better, and U.S.-based PR professionals are more familiar with the U.S. legal landscape. This is in part due to ingrained knowledge of their home country’s landscape, and also because of the localized strategies and reporter relationships they have developed over the years.

Moreover, the impact of time zones on timeliness — another news value — may seem self-explanatory, but cannot be overstated. 

Anticipating and reacting to breaking news, knowing when editorial meetings take place and the best time to pitch, and maintaining close contact with reporters, as well as meeting deadlines, are all core functions of PR to which a five-hour-or-more time difference creates a huge hurdle. 



Legal Gossip and Reputational Risk

Tabloid journalism will be familiar to PR professionals on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it is not very often that one sees a corporate law firm as the focal point of an article in the tabloid press.

Nevertheless, communications teams responsible for a firm’s activities in the U.K. know not to underestimate the power of gossip in legal London and the reputational risk it carries. People moves and pay scales are often the most read articles.

In a profession that has been traditionally characterized by long hours, high salaries and large volumes of work, it is also not uncommon for people to vent occasionally.

Furthermore, while the media landscape may be relatively small compared to the U.S., there are journalists adept at finding out the more peculiar goings-on in the U.K. legal scene.

PR professionals in the U.K. may feel they need not worry as much about this in the U.S., where this is less prevalent. However, this does not mean they should be complacent.

One only need look at the recent case in the U.K. where an office cleaner was allegedly fired by the agency employing her — not the law firm, it needs to be said — for eating a leftover tuna sandwich from a meeting room, as an example of how a story first broken by a niche publication quickly snowballed into a nationwide, and eventually international, story resulting in negative coverage in U.S. mainstream media for the U.K. law firm concerned. 



Social Issues and Culture Wars

The 2020 murder of George Floyd and subsequent racial reckoning left a profound impact on global corporate communications, evident again most recently at the start of the war in the Middle East.

However, as the U.S. social and political climate has become increasingly polarized, organizations there face heightened pressures to engage publicly with major societal issues, and to do so on a more frequent basis.

The U.S. legal industry is certainly not exempt from this pressure, and found itself in the culture war crossfire last year when an anti-affirmative action group sued several firms over their diversity efforts. These actions arrived as the industry sought to address its own deep-rooted inequities, while also promoting its abilities to help clients manage these very legal challenges.

Legal PR professionals thus play an important role in shaping and managing firm communications strategies and messaging. When navigating the U.S. media landscape, U.K. firms must prepare to respond to controversies with clarity and a point of view. 

Awareness of current U.S. social and political issues and organizational values is key. In contrast to the U.S., corporate law firms in the U.K. historically have tended to avoid commenting or taking a position on major cultural issues.

Furthermore, financial and professional services in the U.K. are much more aligned on major topics such as environmental, social and governance issues, or the war in Ukraine, and less prone to apparent party-political differences, so PR professionals may have less experience dealing with such situations.

This may also explain why recent events that have had a sizable impact on the U.K. — such as the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022 or the ongoing conflict in the Middle East — prompted much discussion among legal PR professionals over how to respond. 



Regional Press and News Features

London has long been the financial, political and judicial center for much of the U.K., home to the U.K. Supreme Court and Royal Courts of Justice of England and Wales, as well as the four inns of court.

Therefore, the major legal outlets, law firms and reporters are almost all represented in or around the capital. Being based in a relatively small geographical area places lawyers and the media within easy reach of one another, which brings both advantages and disadvantages for those in legal PR.

Business is more spread out across the U.S. Obviously, the country is larger, and the economy more diverse. While New York City is considered the most significant hub for U.S. legal business thanks to Wall Street and the local concentration of corporations, other regions across the country also serve as major hubs: from Texas, a leading global producer of energy resources, to Washington, D.C., the U.S. center for regulatory and governmental affairs.

This presents a different set of opportunities and challenges for firms in the U.S. Regional legal and business outlets widen the pool of media with which a firm can engage, and lower competition for story placements.

U.S. reporters are not just more receptive to covering office openings, they are often willing to explore other legal business developments and soft news angles — from a female-led trial team to an office redesign — so long as there’s a clear tie to a broader trend or strategy.

On the flip side, more media opportunities mean more risk. It is atypical even for U.S. firms to have PR professionals on the ground in every regional market of their operations, so PR professionals must closely monitor multiple markets and develop reporter relationships from afar to effectively mitigate and respond to negative coverage.

However, it is worth noting that local media relevant to legal PR professionals is becoming scarcer.

The U.K. and U.S. have two distinct and dynamic PR landscapes that are constantly shifting, and PR professionals based in the U.K. looking to gain traction in the U.S. must adapt their strategies accordingly. 

As they do, understanding the nuanced differences between the two countries’ cultural, legal and media environments is key if cross-jurisdictional campaigns are to be successful. 



Originally published by Law360 on 20 March 2024

Ben Finnis is an account director at Greentarget U.K.

Elizabeth Rincon is an associate vice president at Greentarget U.S.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice. 

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