Vol. 37, No. 5

Social media: Presence, publicity . . . and planning

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Some bar leaders might still be hesitating over whether their bar association really needs to be active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media platforms. But for Darrell Mottley, past president of the unified District of Columbia Bar and member of the Executive Council of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, the need was beyond clear.

 “Part of the court’s instructions to the bar is that we are to educate the public,” Mottley told attendees at this year’s ABA Bar Leadership Institute, in Chicago. Given how many people use social media, he said, it can easily be argued that a presence on at least some of the more popular platforms is now critical to fulfilling that part of the bar’s mission.

Helping Mottley make the case, and offering tips for how bars can be most effective on social media, were fellow panelists Catherine Sanders Reach, director of law practice management and technology at the Chicago Bar Association, and W. Patrick Tandy, director of communications at the Maryland State Bar Association.

Harnessing the power of the RT

The MSBA is present on a number of different social media platforms, Tandy said, but is perhaps most active and successful with Twitter. After about a year and a half of steady building, the bar’s Twitter feed has about 1,000 followers, Tandy said, noting that most of those are “quality,” meaning people with a legitimate interest in the bar association, not spammers.

 “Build and cultivate a good network that you interact with,” Tandy advised, noting that this network might include not just bar members and other lawyers, but also law students and reporters.  

Having some media outlets or individual reporters as followers can be very useful in getting the bar’s message out, Tandy said. If one or two of those reporters retweet something of yours (that is, pick it up from your Twitter feed and tweet it to their followers through their own account), this will significantly increase your reach, he explained.

Effective use of hashtags—the # symbol, which is used on Twitter to search for tweets related to a particular subject—is also helpful, Tandy noted. The MSBA saw this firsthand, he said, when the bar’s Board of Governors voted to endorse a state bill in favor of same-sex marriage.

Besides publicizing this decision via press releases and other traditional means, he explained, the bar also tweeted about it—and used the #samesexmarriage hashtag. What was the return on that investment of time? For one thing, Tandy said, “thirty-five pages of retweets, from all over the world,” and for another, the story was picked up by The Guardian, one of the largest newspapers and online news outlets in the United Kingdom.

Preventing problems

In response to a question from the audience, Mottley noted that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media don’t take the place of e-blasts and other types of communication, but that they can complement them as one more way to inform members and others.

But, Reach noted, there have been many lapses in social media judgment, such as when an employee who has both a personal account and a corporate one forgets to switch from one to the other, with disastrous—and very public—results.

One way to prevent things like this, Tandy suggested, is to carefully select the person who will manage the bar’s accounts. What’s needed is not just technological savvy, he explained, but also “institutional knowledge and maturity.”

Some of the do’s and don’ts are common sense, Tandy said; for example, professional courtesy dictates that you not take unflattering, unannounced candid photos, whether to post on social media or publish in more traditional communication vehicles.

Tandy noted that the MSBA has a long-standing rule against publishing photos in which people are holding alcoholic beverages. This applies to the print publications and has been adopted for social media as well.

At the D.C. Bar, Mottley said, consent to be photographed is presumed when someone attends an event, and a form on the bar’s website indicates that the photos can be used in any media.

As for the common fear that someone will post a negative comment, with proper management, none of the panelists have found this to be a significant concern at their bar associations.  If it does become a problem, Tandy suggested, it’s possible to deactivate the comment feature on Facebook.

Which platform is best?

The panelists agreed that different social media platforms handle different things well, and that the right mix depends on what you intend to use them for.

For example, though there’s more activity on the MSBA’s Twitter page than on its Facebook page, Tandy said Facebook is a great place to post photos and other visuals, which fans then share with other users, helping to “broaden awareness.”

Mottley said the D.C. Bar started with LinkedIn but that there’s now much more activity on its newer Twitter and Facebook pages; Mottley agreed with Tandy’s assessment that Facebook is a great place to post, as he put it, “photos, photos, photos.”

Also useful for photos, Tandy said, is Flickr, a site that was created expressly for that purpose. It’s “extraordinarily helpful,” he explained, to have the bar’s sections post their photos there so they can be arranged by album to make them “neat, and easy to share.”

Another platform that the Chicago bar has found to be very successful, Reach said, is YouTube. One video, on how to create a transparent signature stamp to use in Adobe Acrobat, had 17,240 views as of press time.

Tandy, too, said he strongly recommends setting up a YouTube channel for the bar association. YouTube is very effective at prompting people to watch more videos at a particular channel once they’re done with whichever one brought them in, he explained, and it’s easy for one viewer to share the video with others who may be interested. These are advantages over posting bar-related videos exclusively on the bar’s website, he believes.

One platform that the MSBA has tried but not found to be very useful is Pinterest, Tandy said, noting that after a year of active efforts, the bar has only about 30 followers on that site.

Particularly if you have a small staff—or are doing all the social media work yourself—don’t feel as if you have to rush right out and establish a presence on every site out there, he advised.

“Concentrate on the ones where your members already are,” he said, noting that this most likely means Facebook and Twitter. If managing those two is still tough, he added, then sites such as hootsuite can help you post to any or all of the platforms you’re using, without having to visit their individual sites.

It’s all part of the plan

However you approach social media, the panelists agreed that it’s best to have some policies and a plan in place. A well thought-out social media policy can help the bar present “a united front,” Tandy said, rather than leaving it up to individuals to decide what’s appropriate.

When the D.C. Bar drafted a new strategic plan a few years ago, Mottley said, it included social media as part of that larger plan for the bar. “We think members need interactive channels,” he explained.