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Presidential communications: Getting your message out
Writing a president’s page for a bar journal or newsletter is just one way a bar leader can communicate with constituents as well as the general public. The popularity of YouTube and other social media provides presidents with additional vehicles by which to convey messages.
In a workshop at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute this past March, Sayde J. Ladov, immediate past chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and Jon D. Huddleston, who completed his term as president of the Virginia State Bar in June, shared insights about the communications tools they used and the compelling stories they told during their presidential year.
Huddleston’s presidential initiative was “Virginia Is for Good Lawyers,” a project that recognized community programs while educating the public about the good works of Virginia’s lawyers.
“One lawyer from Richmond has served the Boy Scouts for 35 years and has produced 37 Eagle Scouts within an eight-year stint as scoutmaster. Another lawyer shuts his practice down every five weeks and operates a soup kitchen,” Huddleston said. “An attorney in northern Virginia has been ringing the bell for the Salvation Army every Saturday during the holidays for the last 17 years. The list goes on and on.”
The Virginia initiative was the focus of Huddleston’s columns in Virginia Lawyer magazine, a blog, the bar’s Web site, the project’s home page, a YouTube channel, on Twitter, and in a video series, “The Big Picture.”
When asked about the video production costs, Huddleston replied, “We have done more with less. The camera and the software cost about $3,000.” Including that relatively small initial cost, he added, “we have done it on a shoestring.”
The average video length was six or seven minutes. “Beyond that, we fear that people will lose interest and not stay with it,” Huddleston noted.
Ladov entered the conversation as the topic turned to podcasts. The Philadelphia Bar Association currently podcasts “all significant events—board of governors meetings, quarterly meetings, and ‘Hot Interviews with Very Cool People,’ she said. “It’s a very inexpensive, low-tech effort with high-yield return.”
As chancellor, Ladov wrote columns for the Philadelphia Bar Reporter that encouraged attorneys to “define their voice” in these difficult economic times, urged members to “engage in civilized discourse” with others while in the midst of a heated debate, and even spoke out against the actions of judges in Luzerne County, Pa., and Philadelphia. “In addressing difficult issues, it’s incumbent upon the bar to have the last word,” she believes.
Ladov gave the attendees some straightforward advice on how to write an engaging column. “Please don’t fall into the trap of writing living obituaries. They don’t grab anybody,” she advised. “People want to know you as a real person. How did you get to be where you are, anyway? Here’s your opportunity to let them know.”
Although Ladov tackled a variety of issues in her columns, she was surprised at the one that garnered the most response. “After writing about judges, writing about hate speech, and all this weighty stuff, the most response that I ever got is for my last column, when I wrote about my dog,” she recalled. “Everyone who is a pet owner somehow grabbed ahold of this and said, ‘Sayde, I hear you.’ They could apply the analogies about everything that I learned from my dog.”
When asked how to handle the challenges of writing president’s pages, finding a topic, and meeting deadlines, Huddleston acknowledged that it was difficult but said he enjoyed it. “The president’s messages are the hardest thing you will have to do, but I actually like it,” he said. “It’s been a good chance to do something different that someone may find a little interesting.”
Some bar presidents enlist their executive director or communications staff to write the column, but Huddleston rejected that idea. “I can’t envision abdicating that opportunity to say whatever it is that you want to say now,” he explained.
Ladov suggested that the presidents-elect in attendance take advantage of the “think time” available during the year before they take office. “Use your BlackBerry,” she suggested. “Get a folder together. Jot down some topics. You may want to use your column to promote your agenda.
“You have the luxury of some time to read a magazine or book. Cut stuff out, throw it in a folder—you never know when it’s going to come in handy.”
Huddleston and Ladov encouraged attendees to take risks and have some fun connecting with members. “Let’s be honest,” Ladov said. “We didn’t get into bar work because we’re shy and retiring and uncomfortable with getting a message out.”