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Tell it like it is

21 August 06

Profile of the Society's Corporate Communications Team and how their role has developed well beyond the traditional press office

by Peter Nicholson


Journal readers will be well aware of the Law Society of Scotland’s recent emphasis on communication as a key aspect of the Society’s role. A central theme of Caroline Flanagan’s and now Ruthven Gemmell’s presidency, and the focus of the strategy recently drawn up by consultant Mandy Haeburn-Little (Journal, March, 14), it has never had a greater priority. But who are the people that make it happen?

The Society’s first press officer was appointed in 1965. The Journal of August that year records that Mrs Veronica Crerar had joined the Society as assistant secretary with principal duties in public relations, adding: “Members are however asked to remember that this appointment is not the end of the task of improving the profession’s relations with the public but only the beginning.” Prescient, no doubt, but when Gillian Meighan, the now Head of Corporate Communications, joined the Society 30 years later, matters remained, shall we say, some way short of best practice.

“My first day involved a pile of newspapers and a pair of scissors, and my job was to read the papers, cut out bits that were of interest and fax them through to office bearers or Council members who might be interested”, she relates. “I noticed that the phones didn’t really ring much during the day, until about half past four when people phoned up asking for their ‘No comment’! I had to say, actually we are commenting now!”

To become properly reactive might have been a step forward, but for the now four-strong team the emphasis is increasingly on proactive engagement. Developing links with the media achieves a better understanding by the Society of what is wanted by way of information and comment, as well as a more informed presentation in the media of matters affecting the Society. Equally it means pushing forward the culture change within the Society so that Executive, Council and committee members all buy into the open and transparent sharing of information central to Mandy Haeburn-Little’s approach.

Hence the recent name change to Corporate Communications Team. “It’s very much a question of reflecting what we do as a team”, Gillian Meighan explains. “We’ve come from dealing mostly reactively with media enquiries, to being much more closely involved with getting the message of the Society and the profession out there.”

Engaging on all fronts

This became particularly important as the consultation process leading to the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill, and then the debate surrounding the bill itself, gathered momentum. Much coverage was generated for the key arguments regarding human rights compatibility , and the proposed complaints levy, among other matters.

Chief Executive Douglas Mill, who became the Society’s voice on the bill, acknowledges the communications team’s support. “In acting as spokesperson I am generally reliant on the professionalism and expertise of our Corporate Communications Department and their breadth of understanding of the Society’s policy positions”, he comments. “I think the whole bill campaign has really been the making of the Department and has tested its mettle.”

The picture is repeated across the Society’s executive. “We’re increasingly using directors and deputy directors to do interviews”, says Gillian Meighan. “Many of them are buying in very strongly to the idea of supporting their committee, by communicating what they’re doing. It’s interesting, so they tend to like doing it.” Suzy Powell adds that the experience has been less daunting than some anticipated. “It’s not the scary grilling that they expect they’re going to get. The media are especially relying on their knowledge and expertise and commentators are much more aware of the media and the need to listen to and work with them. We work to support that across the board.”

There is much more to this than the headline-grabbing stories. The Society’s numerous committees do “a vast amount of work”, says Meighan, “with very committed experts, and what we want to do is really show stakeholders, the public and the profession the value of what they’re achieving. I think in times past there wasn’t that appreciation of the benefits of communication, but there’s much more interest now, which is great.”

To keep track of this great volume of material and help it plan a more comprehensive communication programme, one of the Team’s current big projects is to develop a “corporate calendar” to provide an overview of what is coming up over the coming year and what the committees are doing.

Reaching out to practice

The third arm of the communication strategy relates to the wider profession. While traditional routes such as the Journal will always have their place, now supplemented by the Journal and Society websites, the way has opened for the Comms Team to develop more sophisticated forms of electronic mailing. The Society’s first “e-zine”, sent out in May to solicitors with known email addresses, was a “tremendous success”, says Gillian Meighan – “every topic mentioned had a huge hit rate on the website”. A second one will have followed by the time you read this. Jody Fitchet explains that tailored versions are likely to follow:

“We’re looking at really targeting the parts of the profession that want to see the information or want to view what’s going on in their fields. Not every solicitor is a conveyancer, or works in criminal law, or is a commercial or in-house lawyer. If you can provide each group with information on issues that affect them, then we’re doing our job more effectively and efficiently.”

Also on the Comms Team’s agenda is encouraging solicitors’ own efforts to communicate, whether with clients or by engaging with their local media. While Gillian Meighan cautions that it would potentially be a conflict of interest to give advice to individual firms, “One of the things that we’re hoping to do more of… is talk to local groups of solicitors, it doesn’t have to be faculties, just some people who are interested in working better with the media or looking to improve their communications, to try to give the profession some support. They certainly give us a lot of support in what we’re trying to do.”

The right contacts

Much of the skill in running the Comms Team is in knowing who to turn to for each individual enquiry. Apart from the Chief Executive or Office Bearers, questions may need to be directed to committee or working party conveners or members. As Suzy Powell comments, “I don’t think any two enquiries are the same but one thing is that they’re very time consuming. It isn’t just answering the phone: some of them can take hours and hours and you have to meet a deadline as well, so that can turn your day on its head.”

Journalists (and others) may simply be looking for background briefing to support an article, an explanation for a news event – or something completely different. “We’ve advised on story lines for River City, Maigret, Taggart – they just want to get it right, so they check with us, or there’ll be a solicitor in the story line and they want to check that there isn’t a real person of that name”, says Suzy Powell. “We even get asked for props – we have gowns, but we can’t provide any wigs!”

“A lot of the time we aren’t seeking column inches for the Society”, Jody Fitchet adds, “but dealing with these enquiries always helps us – the journalist is more informed as to the way we work and we get used to the way they work as well, so they’re more likely to come back to us again.”

A decade or so ago the Society had a special levy on members to fund a nationwide advertising campaign – remember “It’s never too early to call your solicitor”? Gillian Meighan doubts the profession’s appetite for a big marketing campaign now: regular newspaper columns, for example, can achieve a similar awareness. “I think people are aware that we’re pretty cost effective in what we do. Most of our coverage costs us effort rather than any advertising fees, though we have a fairly minimal level of advertising that we think is important in some areas and some publications. The focus is more on communications and since it was Caroline Flanagan’s main theme in her year, the Office Bearers have been very supportive and are well aware that what we’re doing to communicate is utterly integral to the successful functioning of the Society. So it’s very much more a focus on corporate reputation and on communication.”

If it sounds like a professional approach, it probably is. The team now regularly networks with organisations including Scottish Financial Enterprise, as well as having discussions with others in the justice field including the Crown Office and Scottish Executive, all useful forums for sharing information, says Gillian Meighan. “We also try to ‘see practice’. For example I’m looking forward to visiting NHS 24 soon on a day when they will be making press announcements. Communications is fairly fast paced and changes quickly so it helps us all to share information and learn from each other.”

Meet the team

Head of the office is Gillian Meighan. Gillian qualified as solicitor in 1990 and practised for four years before deciding to study management. She joined the Society’s media office in 1996.

Suzy Powell, Gillian’s deputy, worked in PR and as a journalist before joining the Society five years ago. Her journalist’s training complements Gillian’s legal training in the team. She now handles much of the team’s media work along with Val McEwan. Suzy has also been dealing with the current legal aid issues.

Val McEwan also trained as a journalist and worked in PR. She was initially brought on board to publicise the 2005 Annual Conference and now works closely with Professional Practice and Update.

Jody Fitchet joined the Society two years ago from a marketing role with Edinburgh Solicitors’ Property Centre. Currently working with Gillian on Society communications, the Legal Profession Bill and the pending rebranding exercise, he is also studying part time for the LLB.

Consultancy and freelance writing help is provided by Craig Watson, a former home affairs reporter at The Herald who has a special interest in legal matters.