Bar presidents on social media: How to avoid risks and reap rewards

Volume 34 Number 4

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Maybe your bar association has a Facebook page, Twitter account, blog, or other online vehicle that is maintained by members of the communications staff or the executive director. But should the president consider communicating this way, too?

That question bears some consideration, said Brad Carr, director of communications at the Alabama State Bar, especially if you intend to use those new media to their fullest, rather than just as a handy way to push out press releases. For many people at bar associations and other such organizations, he explained, the first impulse might be to make the communication one-sided and not allow comments or other responses, for fear that some will be negative. But to gain the most benefit, he said, you have to allow those comments and then monitor, respond, or remove them accordingly; in other words, you have to give your members and other interested parties a voice, too.

“The loss of control will frustrate you,” he said, suggesting that bar presidents and other leaders who are contemplating some type of social media venture first look at several of the most popular platforms and consider which one (or ones) they’re most comfortable using.

Joining Carr on a panel at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute in March were Courtney Ward-Reichard, then president of the () Bar Association, and Stephen P. Younger, then president of the New York State Bar Association. Both presidents were quite active in social media—Ward-Reichard, on Twitter, and Younger, on Facebook—and were ready to share what it is they gained by giving up a little control and trying something new.

The tweeting president

It was at BLI a couple of years ago that Ward-Reichard had the idea of incorporating social media into her overall communication plan for her presidential year. While she does use Facebook personally—“probably more than I should,” she said—Twitter was her choice for her presidential account.

Ward-Reichard finds it easy to use Twitter; users can search through it and see tweets without having to join, she noted. A website called Tweetdeck can help you manage your Twitter account (and other social media accounts), she added, and you can write your tweets from there rather than at the Twitter site itself.

You can set up specific Twitter events, she added, such as a legal chat at 10:00 a.m. Eastern on Fridays. These standing events would get their own hashtags (the # symbol followed by a brief name that lets Twitter users know about the event).

Also popular, she said, is using Twitter to organize in-person events, called tweetups. When she spoke at BLI, Ward-Reichard said the HCBA was organizing a tweetup, and 60 people were coming—which she said was good turnout for a bar of its size (about 8,200 members).

Twitter is great for multiple posts on a single topic or event, Ward-Reichard said. For example, if you posted on Facebook that you were going to be on a panel, were heading to the panel, and then had just finished participating in the panel, people might think that was excessive, but it’s considered perfectly OK for Twitter.

Carr cited John Sirman, Web manager for the State Bar of Texas, who has recommended to his peers at other bar associations that those active on Twitter should plan on tweeting fairly often (much more than, say, once a month), but no more than five tweets a day. Carr also recommended writing tweets that contain links, rather than having them all be simple statements that don’t direct people further.

“The best use of social media is to help people find things through you,” he explained. It’s important to note that those people will likely not all be members of your bar—they could also be prospective members, leaders at other bar associations or other professional organizations, or other interested parties. Indeed, Ward-Reichard said, while many of her followers on Twitter are members of her bar, she has many more who are lawyers from all across the country.

What if you dutifully tweet and no one chooses to follow you? To prevent that, Ward-Reichard said, you have to figure out your niche, publicize in your president’s page that you’re also on Twitter, and then find other people to follow and retweet (that is, repost) what they’re talking about.

First on Facebook

When he took office last June, Younger recalled, he announced that he would be “the first Facebook president of the state bar.” He had read research and heard from a consultant who said it wasn’t enough for an organization to have a website anymore, and that even people in older generations have been jumping onto Facebook and other forms of social media.

 “If you’re not on [social media],” he believes, “you’re going to miss your audience.”

 Younger chose Facebook over other social media platforms and thinks it might be the best place for other bar leaders to start, too. He finds it easy to use and said it’s a great place to put things like event announcements, press releases, reports, and other items that would clutter the bar’s home page but that deserve attention.

Many bar leaders are a bit nervous about the fact that having a presence on Facebook opens the bar up to a lot of comments from members and others (more on that later), but Younger relishes this type of interaction. Medical malpractice has been a hot-button issue in his state recently, he said, and he has been gratified to see members and other interested parties actively discussing it on his presidential Facebook page. He also has a personal page, to which he restricts access, but he enjoys the open communication with members and others via his presidential one.

There’s another way Facebook has helped open up discussion of the issues pertaining to medical malpractice, Younger said; he has posted radio interviews he has done around the state on that topic, thereby broadening the audience far beyond the individual stations’ listening areas.

All of Younger’s Facebook posts are also on Twitter, but he is not active there because he believes it’s better for him to choose one platform to focus on rather than trying to keep up with two or more. NYSBA also has its own Facebook page, separate from his presidential one, he said. Similarly, Ward-Reichard said, the HCBA maintains a presence on Facebook and on Twitter, separate from her own Twitter account.

What about LinkedIn?

LinkedIn is often mentioned in the same breath as Facebook and Twitter and cited as the most professional of the three platforms—and the least likely to attract embarrassing comments or oversharing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice for bar associations venturing into social media, the BLI speakers said.

Carr has a personal LinkedIn page but said he has not established one for the Alabama State Bar. It is indeed a very professional communication device, he said, but added, “I’m not really sure how to use it.”

He again cited John Sirman in, noting that he has set up different groups on LinkedIn and uses it to communicate both with bar members and with nonlawyer friends. He posts many links to other sites—but you can also easily do this via Twitter, Carr noted.

“LinkedIn is more static, in my opinion,” Ward-Reichard said. She thinks it’s important for the bar association to be present there as well, so that members can interact that way if they so choose. All three panelists, though, agreed that Facebook and Twitter are more conducive to ongoing discussion and frequent interaction.

Facebook and Twitter, Ward-Reichard added, are also more conducive to a mix of personal and professional topics—something she finds appealing because it helps build connections, and “marketing is about relationships.” If you met someone at a cocktail party, she said, you wouldn’t limit your conversation to professional matters; you’d also talk about your children, your hobbies, and other personal interests. That’s the kind of interaction you can have on Facebook or Twitter, but not on LinkedIn, she believes.

Not just a one-off project

Both Ward-Reichard and Younger were uncertain what the future would hold for their bars’ presidential social media presences once their terms expired (for Younger, that was in June, and for Ward-Reichard, July). Both, however, have hopes that their successors will keep it up, and both will go back to maintaining only their personal accounts so that the next president can take the spotlight.

The state bar is in the middle of a long-range plan, Younger said, and has realized that social media is an important part of the overall communication strategy. His immediate successor is active on Facebook, too, and Younger hoped he would continue the practice of having a presidential page. Further out, he noted, if there were a leader who didn’t wish to be heavily involved, it wouldn’t be too difficult for a staff member to step in and maintain it.

Ward-Reichard said the next two leaders in line at her bar were receptive to the idea of tweeting, but not necessarily excited about it—but that the third person down is quite interested in this idea. For true continuity, she believes, maintaining a presidential Facebook page or Twitter account should be set as an expectation for each new leader, along with writing a president’s page for the bar publication.

Worth the risk?

An audience member asked what a bar leader can get out of maintaining a presence on Facebook or Twitter—after all, it does take time to write these posts, and there are some risks involved.

Younger said it only takes him about five minutes each day to check his presidential Facebook page and post something new. Carr noted that the communications director or executive director can assist the president in managing his or her Facebook or Twitter presence, in order to get the most out of the time spent on it—and avoid any pitfalls.

Younger said that there is one staff person who keeps an eye on his presidential page, and two who track the one for the whole bar. The one who checks his page is a young person, he added—someone who is on Facebook anyway, so this duty doesn’t take away too much additional staff time.

What about negative or incendiary comments that can result from communicating so openly with members, or with anyone who chooses to interact with you via social media? Carr said he agrees with Elizabeth Derrico, associate director of the ABA Division for Bar Services, who advises that if some individuals are going to say something negative, it’s actually much better that they do it in a forum where you can see it and respond, rather than in secret.

A disclaimer on the Facebook page for the Alabama State Bar notes that any comment deemed inappropriate will be removed, but Carr has chosen to use that right sparingly. For example, he said, a woman recently posted a complaint about her custody case; rather than removing that post, Carr responded with useful information regarding where to direct such complaints. He did, however, take down another comment that alleged “judicial malfeasance.” Younger said he draws the line at uncivil, personal attacks.

But what if it’s not a member or layperson who makes an untoward comment? What if the president says something ill advised? This is a risk even without technological help, Ward-Reichard said: “I’m the voice of our bar association. I can embarrass us without social media very easily.” That’s not to say, though, that she hasn’t ever made a gaffe that was specific to Twitter.

Not long ago, she intended to send a tweet from her personal account but accidentally sent it from her presidential one. Compounding the problem, she added, was that she only found out about her mistake five days later. “But it wasn’t too bad,” she said. “The people who are using social media and following you are more understanding than the membership as a whole.”

For Younger, the main reward has been seeing that the 500 or so members who regularly visit the Facebook page know about upcoming events and current issues, and engage him and each other in conversation via the comments. That’s a small portion of the overall membership, but those who do interact that way “really want it,” Younger noted. Ward-Reichard added that having a social media presence can be an especially good way to stay in touch with younger members.

Younger has also found that there are significant personal rewards. “I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s fun.” Interacting with members in this way, he explained, has helped him learn things about many of them that he wouldn’t have known otherwise, and has increased his feeling of connection with the membership, and vice versa.

Being a bar president can be lonely work, he added; when he’s by himself in a hotel room on bar business, it can be very satisfying to check his Facebook page and finds a comment that says, “Great job.”

—By Marilyn Cavicchia

 

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Feeling shy? Here’s help

If you like what you learned in this article but are still nervous about establishing a social media presence for your president, the bar itself, or both, here are two great resources that can help you decide whether this is a good idea—and, if so, how to get started:

 

—MC

 

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