Holding Law Firms Hostage with Sponsored Content

Plenty of legal publications like to write profiles of in-house corporate general counsels. Editors and publishers know their readers are interested in finding out what it’s like to guide the legal function of a major company like Google or General Motors. And GC’s of smaller companies are interesting because of the diverse nature of their work and they often have interesting and unusual backgrounds and experiences. For corporate PR professionals these outlets can be excellent opportunities to showcase their top in-house talent.

However, some publications have emerged that appear to be unbiased news outlets but function more as “sponsored content” or “custom publishing.” That means they are essentially advertising material just as a company would produce a glossy brochure highlighting a new product or service.

Vanguard magazine, recently founded by TrueLine Publishing Co. appeals to its clients with the tagline “Your Story, Here.” On its blog, it describes itself as being “dedicated exclusively to the perspectives of law firms and in-house legal counsel, helping those in leadership roles share their stories, successes and accomplishments.” The CEO of TrueLine is quoted as saying, “With personalized feature articles, tailored brochures and a hosted presence on our site, Vanguard provides the exposure and marketing materials legal professionals need to stand out, shape and manage their online reputations.”

So Vanguard’s business model does not involve covering the legal industry objectively but helping legal professionals “shape and manage their online reputations.” It’s a more sophisticated, 21st-century version of the old law firm brochure. There is absolutely nothing improper about what it does or its business model and Vanguard’s blog and website are quite straightforward about what the publication is and what it does. But it’s not unbiased journalism.

Modern Counsel’s website poses the following question: “Are you an in-house counsel or executive in the legal industry who wants to share your story with your industry peers?  for feature consideration in one of our next issues of Modern Counsel.” A “real, unbiased news” legal periodical would not ask that question.

Modern Counsel is also upfront about its goals and objectives. It’s pitch: “Modern Counsel provides an exclusive and targeted platform that connects those working successfully within corporate law… Whether your marketing initiatives are towards business development, recruiting, or to simply amplify your message, our print and digital media platforms set the stage for you to directly reach your audience.”

As a law firm PR professional, I am keenly aware of the distinction between journalistically driven and independent print and online magazines and content marketing publications. You need to be aware of this distinction as well.

This knowledge is relevant to my day-to-day PR practice in a number of ways. The one that stands out the most is when a law firm client receives a pitch from one of these publications to advertise to support the creation of a GC profile. The marketing team knows which firms represent the GC candidate so the pitch is for the firm to help pay for the production of the profile.

This creates a touchy situation for law firms. They may have an excellent relationship with the GC but know nothing about the content-marketing publication. And they may prefer to direct its advertising dollars elsewhere, and already have their budget in place. A traditional, more established magazine would not tie its editorial content directly to the purchase of advertising in this way.

As a PR person, this also creates a challenge on what to advise clients. The best thing I can do is fully disclose all these issues and let my law firm clients decide what to do. It’s a bit of a hostage situation, because law firms are frequently concerned competitors will advertise and their absence may be conspicuous!