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3 Reasons Attorneys Fail When Speaking to Reporters

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

You're more of a Perry Mason style lawyer than a Johnnie Cochrane, more Clarence Thomas than Antonin Scalia. You save the speechifying for the court room, leave the impassioned arguments in your briefs.

But, when it comes to dealing with reporters, you might be doing yourself and your clients a disservice by staying mum -- or worse, by speaking poorly. Don't miss an opportunity to represent your clients (and yourself) in the court of public opinion as well as you do in a court of law. Here are three mistakes attorneys often make when dealing with reporters and how you can avoid them:

1. Ignoring the Press -- Then Complaining About the Press

Refusing to comment while legal proceedings are pending is a common response to press inquiries. If you represent a government institution, multinational corporation, or the like, withholding comment can help you maintain an appearance of neutrality and distance.

But don't think that by not engaging you'll minimize coverage. That story will probably get written, with or without your input. That means that if you want to influence the coverage, you'll have to engage. Reporters want to explain both sides of a conflict, but if you deny them access to your side, you and your client can't complain about one-sided coverage later.

2. Under Preparing, Speaking off the Cuff, Getting Riled

Take a lesson from the mistakes of Donald Trump's lawyers: don't speak off the cuff and don't let reporters get under your skin. Michael Cohen recently learned that lesson the hard way. When a Daily Beast reporter asked Cohen about a decades old claim that Donald Trump had raped his first wife, Ivana Trump, Cohen lost his composure. "I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know." For an added touch, he asserted that "by the very definition, you can't rape your spouse." That didn't go over well for Cohen or his boss.

Don't be the "you can't rape your wife" lawyer. Call reporters back quickly, but make sure you're prepared. Maintain the same professional discipline and composure that you would employ in a courtroom when talking to a reporter.

3. Lying or Giving Half-Truths

Nothing will ruin your relationship with journalists quicker than misleading them. If you're dealing with a matter that could get repeated media exposure, or if you ever plan on being interviewed by a reporter in your area again, lying, making false denials, and generally misleading reporters is a great way to shoot yourself in the foot. These actions can ensure a negative relationship for years to come.

Take Mary Flood, for example. In a recent white paper, the former reporter for the Houston Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal says she still doesn't trust a lawyer who lied to her -- in 1986.

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