Apparently not everyone is reading our “Tips of the Week,” or a certain partner at Reed Smith might have taken heed of the suggestions my colleague Kevin Aschenbrenner recently provided on how to avoid embarrassing yourself and your firm on social media.
Instead, this partner evidently didn’t think through the significance of entering into a public Twitter debate with SCOTUSblog that resulted in him using foul language and demonstrating unprofessional behavior. Several media outlets then picked up on this heated and embarrassing exchange, no doubt causing him and the firm further humiliation.
This firm responded that posting offensive commentary is against its law firm social media policy, which is something we would expect most firms these days to create as an important first step in their social media activity.
Law firms and lawyers engaging in social media certainly need to be guided by a policy that demonstrates the firm’s values and provides parameters for online behavior. However, is just having a policy enough?
There are several other important tactics for law firms engaging in social media to consider.
Educating: Any member of the firm, whether administrative staff or senior partner, should undergo a series of social media trainings that delivers not only a comprehensive review of the law firm’s social media policy, but also an understanding of how the most popular platforms are to be used.
Before the Internet, stories about inappropriate behavior by lawyers were usually reserved for water cooler and telephone gossip that generally stayed within the boundaries of the local community. Containment was much easier to manage. However, stories shared by social media are global, instant and shareable.
Nearly everyone these days is using social media, from the receptionist posting family and friends’ photos on Instagram to the administrative assistant updating several partners’ LinkedIn profiles to the associate connecting with alumni via Facebook. Does everyone know how to properly use those platforms?
For example, just because an attorney decides not to use the law firm’s name with his or her profile, a level of professionalism is nonetheless expected of a lawyer who is communicating online, no matter what the site. The line between professional and online personal lives can be blurred, and it’s important to emphasize that restraint during controversial discussions is always the best course of action, no matter whether online or on the golf course.
Monitoring: Without a doubt, it can be tricky to keep up with the online activity of every individual at a law firm, and no one wants a Big Brother environment. But each firm should dictate how social media monitoring occurs, if indeed monitoring happens at all, and ensure that everyone knows about it.
It is in the firm’s best interest to understand its online public reputation and the related activity of its staff and lawyers. Does an associate have a pattern of sending tweets in a manner that is unpredictable and may cause problems if not nipped in the bud? Has a partner crossed an ethical line by “friending” a local judge on Facebook or connecting with him on LinkedIn?
Enforcing consequences: So the damage is done and the firm’s name has been dragged in the mud, along with the offender who didn’t think or care about the law firm’s social media policy. Now what?
How each firm handles the individual violation is up to the firm, whether it is as severe as a firing or as weak as a slap on the wrist. The important thing is to explain the potential consequences in the social media policy and provide frequent reminders throughout the firm so enforcement of violations is expected and understood by all.
It’s serious business to damage a public reputation, and it can be done with far fewer than 140 characters – the Reed Smith partner only needed 19 letters! The implications will be long-lasting, so what is your firm going to do about it?
Communicating: People are human, after all, and mistakes will be made. A breach of online etiquette by a partner or firm staff member can easily happen, usually from poor judgment in the heat of the moment. Having a communications plan in place to respond and react to damaging diatribes makes good PR sense for law firms. A law firm crisis communication plan should now include a social media section with a strategy for overcoming negative news.
Social media is here to stay, and it’s time that firms implement these critical measures beyond having a law firm social media policy. If you’ve witnessed a social media gaffe, share your examples in the comments (respect privacy, please!) and how they were handled well – or not!
For further insights about effective implementation of a law firm social media policy and strategy, contact Vivian Hood at firstname.lastname@example.org, and download a copy of our law firm social media policy template.