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In the public eye

13 March 06

Interview with Douglas Mill and communications expert Mandy Haeburn-Little on the Society's new strategy to transform its public image

by Peter Nicholson


What do you call 1,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? “A terrible waste” is not the punchline usually heard for this type of joke, but if Mandy Haeburn-Little has her way in changing the Society’s public face, even the old wisecracks could end up being rewritten.

Haeburn-Little, Director of MHL Corporate, is the communications adviser brought in by the Society last year to try and sharpen up its public profile, which has gone through what might kindly be described as some uncertain times in the last couple of years.

Though it happens to coincide with the most far-reaching external review of the Society’s functions in its history, it is a project for which Chief Executive Douglas Mill has been pushing for some years.

“I took up my post in 1997 and the Society was probably about 1976 in terms of communications strategy”, he comments. “It’s taken us nine years to do about 25 years’ work. In a perfect world we would have engaged with Mandy or a Mandy person about four or five years ago. Considering our marketing committee was stood down four years ago, there has been a huge gap to be filled.”

Eventually last summer Haeburn-Little – whose past clients include at least one leading Scottish legal practice – was appointed with the brief to find out how the Society’s stakeholders (including not least individual member solicitors) really perceive the body and the way it operates, and to devise a suitable strategy in response. Given a free hand as to choice of respondents – Society supporters and critics alike – and with her ability as an outsider to elicit frank answers to basic questions, she quickly built up a picture which, though containing both positive and negative messages, clearly identified some priorities for action.

“I particularly would like to put on record the receptiveness of everybody we met, really wanting to see there being change within the Society, though with a very strong recognition of the many skills, attributes and experience held within the Society”, she comments. “People wanted to see change, they were very keen to see the Society succeed and evolve into something that was much more directly relevant and in some senses more directly acceptable. And also I suppose more easily understood.”

Messages and the messenger

So what particular themes emerged? First off she raises “the question of accessibility”: how genuinely accessible is it to understand the workings of the Society and how relevant its workings are to the profession. “Another very important thing that came out was about being the voice of the profession and the voice of the Society and how you marry those two together”. A third was “the brand of the Society” and what it says about the Society and about the profession. Then a continually emerging theme is representation of the profession, “something which I feel very strongly is the responsibility of the profession to present itself favourably, and I’m not sure it always does”.

At a later stage she returns to the key messages that came out. “There are quite a few, but in the broad sense it’s that you have an enormously able profession here in Scotland, a tradition to be proud of but one that’s moving very much with the times and recognises the changing needs of the consumer and those who need support. There’s also the message behind that for up and coming students of law as well, this is what the profession’s saying about itself, which I’m also very interested in – why a student would choose law as a profession and what their expectation is.”

The run of play state

Given their treatment in sections of the media (and, it must be said, sometimes from those closer to home), there must be days when the Society’s staff feel they are fair game for a kicking from anyone and everyone. Haeburn-Little suggests the picture is less bleak.

Four stages, in her analysis, mark the development of an organisation and external perceptions of it. “Victim, sitting target, run of play and the one that everybody wants to be, contender.” For an organisation that’s a victim in the public eye, the people who work there feel they are open to whatever attack comes on a daily basis – a wholly demeaning situation to be in. “Sitting target” means that you have very few defences when people come at you. When you’re run of play there’s a fairly strong mix: the balance between controls and being open to attack is equal. “Most organisations which are run fairly effectively in terms of corporate governance and risk will find themselves run of play and that’s really where the Society’s sitting at the moment”, she adds. “Everybody wants to be the contender and that means come at me at your peril, because I’ll already have seen you coming and I’ll have plans in place to be ready for you. Inevitably you can’t predict everything, however if you’re really good in terms of corporate governance and contingency you’ll have that planning done. There’s a much broader set of behaviours associated with that, but that’s how it works in outline and the Society came in somewhere between ‘target’ and ‘run of play’.”

After two presentations to Council, Haeburn-Little appears to have won their backing. “Council has been enormously supportive of taking it forward and what I’ve heard very loudly was a call for real progress in terms of let’s have the action plan and let’s get on and really do this now, which is very heartening.”

Like charity, reform will begin at home. One difficulty identified, as Douglas Mill admits, stems from the lack of authority in individuals to speak for the Society. “We tend to be very democratic about it and also very specialist about it”, he concedes. “That’s fine, we’re giving expert comment and so on but we’re losing the fact that an impact could be made, and other law societies deal with it differently.” He cites the example of the Law Society of England and Wales’ Chief Executive Janet Paraskeva, who despite being a non-lawyer rapidly became their spokesperson. “It was very instructive to me to watch her. It’s been our culture not to do that, to be very Church of Scotland” – in the sense that the Kirk as another democratic body with a changing leadership can find this a weakness in promoting a clear public profile. So providing more support for individual spokespeople is high on the agenda.

Council business is also to come under scrutiny. The Society has been aware of the difficulty in having “a tight, meaningful debate when you have 53 very skilled and able people sitting round a meeting”, as Haeburn-Little puts it. And this doesn’t just refer to the size of the body. “Could you change the style of meetings so that one would only be about policy?” she asks. “And again people were flagging up what items would be particularly important, and one of the views from external stakeholders has been, how do we know what the Council thinks, find out what their big ideas are, how do we know when they discuss these issues?”

The challenge for Council

She continues: “Another very important aspect for Council as a whole is the phrase ‘talking it up’, which although it sounds very American I think the profession really has to speak strongly in favour of itself because it gets such a slamming from everybody else. So the last thing we need is the Council being introverted and defensive. This is actually the time to really pull together. Some exceptional orators sit in that room, and it is their responsibility to start seriously talking the profession up.”

Douglas Mill is clear that part of the strategy must involve bringing on new Council members as quickly as possible. “Some members were around in the era where you didn’t say anything for your first year. We’ve got to fast track people these days. If we get five, six, seven good years out of a Council member, we can’t take for granted the fact that they pick up things by osmosis, we’ve really got to train them.” He enthuses about the quality of recently joined members, who have now attended a successful induction day. The Society is also working on providing much more in the way of written guidance: “For the benefit of the organisation and the development of individual Council members we’ve got to formalise a lot of stuff that was just unwritten and taken for granted for so long.”

Simpler and more direct

The Haeburn-Little action plan also wants to see a revamped corporate communications effort. A calendar of what’s happening in the year, plus a “communications toolkit” to enable committees to feed more effectively into the corporate communications team will make much of the Society’s activity more accessible to the outside world. “You have to allow time for being reactive as well as proactive in effective corporate communications, so there has to be sufficient buy-in for the contingency so that you’re ready to react as circumstances develop and evolve”, says Haeburn-Little.

And she is confident of producing results as timelines are met in the coming months. “The changes I hope people will see quite quickly are a much stronger voice, on behalf of the Society as a whole, and a voice that has a confidence in terms of what it’s saying and which it deserves to have, much more direct information, messages being simpler and clearer and people feeling that it’s much easier to make contact with the Society. In the broader sense it would also be very good to see the profession being represented differently and to see there being evidence from commentators to that effect. But there has to be a breaking down of some broader barriers before that can be achieved.”

Why the bad press?

Will this be enough to overcome the anti-lawyer instincts of the media? Haeburn-Little recognises that it won’t all be plain sailing, but insists that the Society could do more than it has in the past. “I think there’s a backlog at the moment because there hasn’t been an ongoing dialogue. And of course there will always be bad days. People who manage their reputation professionally day in day out will always have the occasional bad day. And that’s nothing to be scared of, certainly nothing to cause you to go back inside your shell, in fact quite the reverse in terms of changing that opinion. You need to have a voice, you need to have a view and you need to be heard and I think the opportunity is really there now in terms of doing that.”

Douglas Mill concedes that the Society has been somewhat naïve in the past. “If I was to define the problem it is that I and the Council and the office bearers made the mistake of thinking that in this country you get judged by reality. We missed the trick – it’s only about perception.”

Mandy Haeburn-Little is clear that perceptions can be influenced.

“If you go and talk to journalists and ask, what is the single factor behind you making such-and-such a statement, they all have a reason for it, and a lot of it’s to do with what they perceive as secrecy, not understanding, people at times appearing arrogant in the profession, at times feeling talked down to and just really not understanding what it was about. So while that continues you will get the same damning statements coming out about being costly, self protecting and all these things.”

She offers one illustration: “One of the interesting views that came back from a journalist whom I rate very highly was that it would be very helpful if the Society spoke out in even more harsh terms about lawyers who are poor. Because it would help to break down this perception that they protect their own all the time.”

She also believes that the Society’s success or failure in being heard will have a direct impact on members’ firms. “I think in terms of making change in the profession the opportunity is here right now to really do that, because otherwise parts of the legal profession will get left behind and they won’t be able to make that transition in terms of journalists’ perception. So the challenge is there now to be very front foot and very positive and I think that one of the tremendous things about the Society is the ability to speak on behalf of the small firms and the rural firms, and these are so important.”

The downside of success

Promoting success ought to be as much a priority as tackling failure, in Douglas Mill’s view, though he knows this goes against the grain of the Scottish character with its tendency to resent others’ achievements. “I have no difficulty talking up the success stories but I know when I talk them up I’m not universally popular.” And he adds: “The easiest thing in the world is trashing the legal profession in Scotland, because all our deepest wounds are the self inflicted ones.”

It would be fair to say that the Society is going to have to get used to a much more open climate of debate if everything that Mandy Haeburn-Little wants to see is to come to pass, but she is quite clear that that should happen. “Very clearly what I heard from members and some interested onlookers is that there does need to be very open debate, that there’s a commitment to containing that debate within the workings of the Society so that the Council enjoys very open discussion.”

For the doubters, the reason is simple. “The calls for everything to be wholly accountable and transparent in public life have never been so heightened as now. And I think people need to understand and to have the opportunity to understand much more what the Society is doing on their behalf.”

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Some of the things that have struck Mandy Haeburn-Little as she takes a look at the Society:

Presentation:

“There are a lot of very good commendations about the changes that have been made to the website, and the student handbook is excellent, really exceptional. But if you look at all the things that the Society is doing, it really galls me that they don’t get credit for it. There are many more things like the equal opportunities report but they are presented in a very traditional way: it could be much more immediate, you could make it clearer in terms of the targeting and really start to hit the audience.”

26 Drumsheugh Gardens:

“I think if you come into the building itself, that speaks volumes about the Society. On the one hand it gives a very positive and very strong sense of tradition and the skills that are contained here, but on the other side if you were somebody needing help, would it be the right impression that you want to give?”

The Journal:

“I think the Journal has already moved. I’ve had a lot of feedback in a very positive sense which I’ve fed back to Council, saying that it has already moved a long way to being much more accessible, but it could be understanding and challenging Society views and seeking the bigger picture, larger areas for debate, and just using very simple language that people understand.”