Ever since the Supreme Court ruled that professional service firms cannot be precluded from engaging in marketing, more and more attorneys have been hiring public relations firms.

Of course, there are other forms of marketing, including (to take just two examples) social media and advertising — and each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Consider advertising. To be sure, it (properly used) can be a very powerful tool under certain circumstances, but it has two shortcomings: it’s very expensive, and it has limited credibility. When you see an ad, chances are that you immediately know that it’s an ad, and so most people automatically discount it in their minds.

Public relations (more narrowly, publicity) is a very different animal. For starters, an article written in a well-regarded publication or a spot on the evening news that is placed by a public relations person rarely has his/her fingerprints on it. In other words, people who see such a story almost never suspect that it was placed through the efforts of a public relations person. In fact, public relations has been a hidden ingredient in the reputation of many famous attorneys in the United States. Let me give you an example.

For more than 15 years, we represented a San Diego lawyer with a nationwide securities practice. When he first spoke with us, he had appeared on selected radio and television programs from time to time. But he had never attained coverage in the significant print media he felt would validate his credentials. He came to us to rectify this omission.

With this goal in mind, we centered a print media program around two types of story angles: (1) issues and trends related to the client’s practice; and (2) the client’s potentially newsworthy cases.

Our campaign soon produced favorable exposure in The Wall Street Journal (twice), Barron’s (twice), Business Week, The New York Times, USA Today (twice), nationally disseminated articles by the Associated Press and Reuters, articles in journals aimed at other professionals (such as Accounting Today and Physicians Financial News), and interviews on the PBS Nightly Business Report and CBS News in Los Angeles.

The payoff? Our client obtained several new cases directly as a result of this exposure, including a multi-million-dollar arbitration in Boston. Indeed, he told me that a piece I arranged in New York Magazine got him a client that more than paid our entire fee for an entire year. In addition, the media “validation” of his expertise helped him obtain a contract with publisher John Wiley & Son, which published his book on guarding against investment fraud.

There was nothing mysterious about how we achieved this. It stemmed from three factors: 1) the credibility of the particular media, 2) identification of the right journalists to approach, and 3) development of timely story angles. PR professionals excel in these tasks. Naturally, it also helped that, as a former journalist (I used to write for The New York Times), it was easy to cultivate relationships with key media.

Of course, each attorney has his/her own specific objectives. In terms of publicity, this may call for publicity in “horizontal” publications, such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, in “vertical” publications (i.e., media that cater to a specific audience and industry, such as real estate or automotive), or in legal publications, because many attorneys get business from other attorneys.

Although the specifics differ, they all start with the same realization — that the use of PR can have a powerful effect on business development. Those who fail to take advantage of this tool risk falling behind their more marketing-savvy competitors.