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Vol. 38, No. 6

Social media for bar leaders: Maximizing its potential through engagement, a personal touch

If you’re a bar president or soon will be, why should you be on social media? For one thing, said Jamie A. Triplin, senior social media specialist at the District of Columbia Bar, “It’s not going away.” And, she added, “People are looking for you.”

It’s likely that members and other stakeholders have searched for you and for the bar association on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, she explained—and if the bar has no presence there, a member or someone else might go ahead and make one. (That actually did happen at the D.C. Bar, before Triplin was there.)

To defend against something like that, open accounts on the various social media platforms so you can reserve your name, even if you know it will be a while before you’re active there, suggested Courtney Ward-Reichard, past president of the Hennepin County (Minn.) Bar Association and Foundation, and current president of the National Conference of Bar Foundations.

Triplin and Ward-Reichard both spoke at the 2014 ABA Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago—in one program together and, in Triplin’s case, in another program as well. Both programs worked from the idea that bar leaders need to embrace social media to at least some degree, and offered tips on how to get started.

Where do you start?

While Triplin was adamant in her assessment that bar leaders must “incorporate [social media], roll with it, or be left behind,” she acknowledged that it can be difficult to decide which platform to focus on first—especially because they keep shifting in terms of popularity and the level of engagement.

The D.C. Bar is on the three most popular social media platforms; for those just getting started, she recommends LinkedIn as “a baby first step.” The next step might be Twitter, with Facebook coming last. Why that order? LinkedIn is comfortable for a lot of people because of its businesslike feel, Triplin said, and it delivers a lot of bang for the buck when it comes to how much its users engage with each other. In fact, agreed Ward-Reichard, “If you’re a lawyer, you’ve got to be on LinkedIn.”

Twitter, meanwhile, has been growing in number of users and their level of engagement. Facebook is still the most widely used social media platform, but for business users, pages can sometimes be fairly static, with a limited number of people wishing to connect with a bar association or other professional organization, Triplin said.

Not just about ‘selling stuff’

Ward-Reichard and Triplin both cautioned against using social media as “free advertising forums” that are strictly for “selling stuff.” In trying to achieve a return on investment, they advised, avoid the temptation to push out a bunch of one-sided messages to attend this CLE or buy that book.

Why not? “People want information and engagement,” Ward-Reichard said; if all your messages are self-serving advertisements, then you will annoy the very people whom you’re trying to attract and involve.

That’s not to say that you can’t ever “sell stuff” via social media, Triplin clarified—but you do that through the connections that you build up over time. For example, she said, one woman recently bought a whole CLE series because of an ongoing connection and conversation—not because of a single sales message from the D.C. Bar.

The time it takes to be effective with social media is both long and short, Ward-Reichard and Triplin said. You can’t just try it for a few days or a week and conclude that it didn’t work, Ward-Reichard explained; building up your following and actively participating in an ongoing conversation takes longer than that. For example, Ward-Reichard has been tweeting as herself (as opposed to representing the bar) for five years at @CWardReichard and said it’s been a slow build rather than an overnight process. Typically, she said, you’ll see a “big bump” in followers and in people engaging with you during and after conferences where people use a particular hashtag to share information.

As far as frequency, Triplin said that it’s OK to post once a week if that’s all you can manage, though once a month would be too seldom. Ideally, though, you’ll post at least once a day, if not several times a day, Triplin and Ward-Reichard said.

“The amount of time you spend on social media is really small, compared with the benefit,” Ward-Reichard believes.

When it comes to LinkedIn, Triplin said, you might find that it takes an initial investment of time that then decreases once your bar’s group there becomes more active. Triplin has been able to step back a bit, she said, because now members themselves are doing more of the posting. Both Triplin and Ward-Reichard stressed that the businesslike setting of LinkedIn demands a professional-looking head shot.

Avoiding minor disasters

Whether you’re posting as yourself or on behalf of the bar, there’s always a risk that you’ll do or say something embarrassing—or that a member will do so. What then?

There’s a certain amount of risk you have to accept, Ward-Reichard and Triplin said. “Social media is not great for multiple layers of approval,” Ward-Reichard noted, meaning that because of social media's immediacy, a post there can’t go through an involved editing process like, say, a president’s page does.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any controls in place. For example, the D.C. Bar’s group on LinkedIn is for members only, and Triplin goes into the member database each week to make sure that there are no nonmembers in it. She doesn’t preapprove posts, but if someone does post something inappropriate, she approaches him or her with a reminder to follow the guidelines for the group.

One thing that can happen fairly easily, Ward-Reichard says, is when someone who has both personal and professional accounts accidentally posts something personal via the professional account. While tweeting as the president of the HCBA, Ward-Reichard herself accidentally posted something about the musician Prince. But it wasn’t the end of the world, Ward-Reichard recalled.

“You delete it, and it’s gone,” she explained. “Most people understand.” Besides, she said, “We can say and do things to embarrass the association no matter the channel”—so the wish to prevent members from saying something untoward is not enough to justify avoiding social media.

The personal touch

Likewise, Ward-Reichard said, the occasional flub is not a reason to avoid giving your social media posts your “personal touch.” Triplin agreed that social media should be human and not “robotic.”

How? “Don’t be afraid to reach out to your audience,” she advised. For example, if a law student in the D.C. area tweets about being nervous for the bar exam, Triplin will tweet back some words of encouragement and a reminder to join the bar once he or she passes.

As you get more into and more excited about your digital efforts, Triplin noted, it’s important to remember that, while this is an important piece of your communications strategy and one of many tools you can use to boost attendance and involvement, social media is not the only form of communication that’s important.

“It’s still essential,” she said, “to build relationships through one-on-one communication.”