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Above the Fold: A Master Class in Legal Public Relations, by William A. Brewer III
Mr. Brewer III

Hospitality Law

Above the Fold: A Master Class in Legal Public Relations

By William A. Brewer III, Managing Partner, Bickel & Brewer

I wrote in this publication a few years ago about the importance of managing public relations in connection with major hospitality disputes. As a law firm that often represents owners, developers, investors and managers in high-stakes legal matters, we recognize the importance of being advocates not only in the courtroom - but in the court of public opinion as well. Mergers and acquisitions, disputes over management agreements, and fights for ownership of guest information are some of the many topics that I previously referenced as "headline-grabbing issues" in the hospitality arena.

Given the interest in that previous article, I am writing this follow-up to underscore why hospitality professionals or their representatives must not only be familiar with the process of working with the news media; they should embrace it. The news media, after all, is a gateway to customers, employees, investors, analysts and legislators - all of whom have the ability to affect your business.

It is, apparently, counter-intuitive to many hospitality professionals to discuss business or legal issues with the news media. They sometimes have concerns about how to effectively shape, control and advance their message in an arena that may be unfamiliar to them. Indeed, there is often a perceived risk in working with the news media, particularly when your organization is confronting a contentious or controversial issue. Understandably, hospitality professionals worry about "going public" - and losing an element of control in how their business disputes are portrayed.

The truth is, the news media affords you and your organization an enormous opportunity. The press can provide a forum for you to effectively communicate with key audiences cost-effectively and efficiently. Oftentimes, the news media can provide balanced, impartial analysis of your organization or the issues in which it is involved.

Making sure your viewpoint is represented in high-profile reporting is central to your responsibility as a steward of a hotel property, investment group or management team. So how do you ensure that coverage about you or your organization is balanced and, even better, favorable?

Know the Basics:

Hospitality professionals are not expected to be media relations experts. However, the best owners, managers and investors I know have a working knowledge of how the media works. They are familiar with the reporters who are most active in the hospitality arena. I often recommend that clients familiarize themselves with the reporters who "make the news" in the hospitality vineyard. Following a reporter's byline will give you insight into how that reporter structures their stories. This is important, because one day the reporter will likely be writing about your company.

There is no substitute for being prepared. In my experience, 90 percent of the work for a media interview is done before you ever speak with a reporter. Understanding the media, your story (the who, what, where, when and why), and the message you want to advance makes working with the media a more fruitful experience. Knowing the basics will come in handy the next time you hear, "The Wall Street Journal is on line one…"

After more than two decades of managing high-stakes hospitality litigation, I am still surprised by the number of hospitality professionals who do not adequately prepare for their encounters with the press.

Be Responsive:

Most reporters used to have to meet one deadline per day; now they "live on deadline," expected to respond to breaking news at a moment's notice. The news cycle is always evolving - and moving at warp speed. In today's ultra-competitive media marketplace, it is not only the newswire services or bloggers who are reporting in real time. Reporters at TV stations and print publications are also chasing breaking news - moving information over the wires and via the Web at a harried pace.

To meet the media demands that follow our clients' largest hospitality disputes, our law firm developed an in-house public relations unit. We help clients navigate the court of public opinion - aiming to be nimble and responsive. More often than not, we commit ourselves to returning all urgent media calls within the hour. When we speak with the reporter, we always inquire about their deadline - ensuring we provide responses or schedule interviews before the first article is released. We demonstrate early on that we understand the pressures on the reporter given the modern day news cycle.

Being responsive to the requests of the media ensures your side of the story is told. Keep in mind that reporters and editors, like you, often work under enormous pressure. Being responsive to their needs is critically important.

Anticipate the Questions - and Your Response:

Most senior hospitality executives benefit from the assistance of a public relations professional. However, some of the most experienced public relations people I know fail to complete one of the most basic and elementary steps of the media process: anticipate not only the questions - but the answers too. Many lawyers or public relations professionals instead view their role as simply the "connector" between a client and the news media. The truth is, a public relations practitioner should help a client anticipate questions, formulate key messages, and establish a strategy for dealing with press inquiries.

While many seasoned reporters are reluctant to provide every question they will ask in advance, most will at least provide key discussion points to help guide an interview. This agenda serves as the roadmap for good media interaction.

By "interviewing the reporter" in advance, your professionals can help prepare you to ensure the media process goes smoothly. Keep in mind that most good reporters do ask follow-up questions in response to the answers you share. The best reporters will be generally familiar with your story before conducting an interview.

You should be prepared for piercing questions - and a myriad of "follow-ups" - that get directly to the heart of your matter, particularly if it involves a legal concern. Our goal when handling an important interview is to do our best to anticipate every question.

Have a Strategic Partner:

I previously written in Hotel Business Review that when working in legal public relations, the most effective collaborations between a lawyer, his/her client and a public relations professional begin with a shared goal or mission.

As I observed then, "To work together effectively, it is critical for public relations and legal professionals to develop a shared understanding that all activities will be carried out with the overall goal in mind. The public relations campaign should be mission oriented. This offers a constant reminder that both sets of professionals are working together in the best interest of the client."

The goal is to be strategic partners in the media process. I would add that hospitality professionals must remember the public relations process continually evolves. Until your legal matter or business issue is fully resolved (and sometimes even after that), you will want to anticipate the possibility of it receiving ongoing interest from the media. The largest hospitality disputes become "running stories" - meaning one media outlet might report multiple times on the evolving dynamics of a story. One article often spawns another. Naturally, this means it is critical for public relations professionals to be kept updated and informed throughout the history of a significant case.

Be Ready to "Go National":

We often work with clients who are surprised when a story "goes national". We always expect this can happen. On many occasions, our cases attract interest from the hospitality trade media - followed by national, mainstream media. Reporters will often cite the trade report as the "event" that got them engaged on the issue. We anticipate that a story could go national - and prepare our clients for that spotlight. The best public relations professionals understand the "ripple effect" of a good news story. Owners, managers and investors should do so as well.

The Best Defense…

Our clients are typically media savvy. Still, there are those who believe the way to effectively protect their position in the court of public opinion is to assume a defensive posture. They caution against talking with the news media and instead opt for the "no comment" statement. The reality is, the best defense is often a good offense.

When appropriate, we recommend that hospitality professionals welcome the media process - even if that means delegating the responsibility of working directly with reporters. Hospitality professionals engaged in high-stakes legal disputes would often do themselves (and their organizations) a great service by allowing their representatives to engage reporters and present the organization's story. Candidly, courting media coverage might mean taking the opportunity to effectively shape and control it. Primacy is key when sharing your side of a complex business dispute in the hospitality arena. When involved in an issue worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, it is often not if, but when, the news media will pursue your story.

Understanding that - and proactively taking steps to present and advance your message in the press - allows you to more effectively dictate the timing and terms of the news reporting to which you will be subjected.

In Summary:

These are important reminders for hospitality professionals confronting a major business dispute. The cornerstone of any media strategy is to be prepared, cooperative and responsive. Hospitality professionals should appreciate that the public relations process is now a central element of any successful organization - and its legal strategy.

By understanding the media relations process, you can help protect your brand or image and ensure that you effectively communicate with your key stakeholders - even during a time of crisis.

Under Mr. Brewer’s direction, Bickel & Brewer has become renowned for its innovative handling of major disputes in a number of industries, including the hospitality industry. Not only has his work in this area changed the state of the law, but it also has resulted in the formulation of creative solutions to countless problems confronting the industry. The firm has represented hotel franchisors, management companies, owners, developers, and investors in many of the highest-profile matters in the industry. Mr. Brewer is frequently published on a wide range of legal and business issues effecting the hospitality industry. He is a member of several leading industry associations, including the American Hotel & Motel Association and the Academy of Hospitality Industry Attorneys. Beyond these associations, Mr. Brewer is active in a broad range of professional groups and philanthropic organizations. Mr. Brewer III can be contacted at 214.653.4000 or wbrewer@bickelbrewer.com Extended Bio...

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