Vol. 37, No. 2

Sections and social media: What is the bar association’s role?

by Dan Kittay

Editor’s note: The fall 2012 issue of BoardLink, a quarterly e-newsletter from the ABA Division for Bar Services that covers bar association and foundation governance, focuses on the board’s role in fostering excellence among bar committees and sections.

Many veteran staff and elected leaders will tell you about a section or committee that at some point did, or planned to do, something that falls outside the guidelines that bars set for sections. It might be an equipment purchase, or printing a brochure, or something that needed to go through proper staff channels before it was approved. Often, the bar handled the incident quietly, and it’s likely that few people noticed.

There are still the occasional groups that might stray from the guidelines, but the potential impact is much greater than before, especially if the incident in question involves setting up an Internet presence, such as a website, Facebook page, or Twitter account. By attaching the bar’s name to that presence, the group runs the risk of presenting positions, comments, or even graphic designs that conflict with the bar’s message—and are available for all to see.

Gaps in consistency

Helena Henderson, executive director of the New Orleans Bar Association, saw this problem firsthand after Hurricane Katrina, when one of the bar’s sections set up its own Facebook page without first consulting bar staff or leadership. Henderson says she noticed the page while on Facebook, and was immediately concerned that it was “competing with our main Facebook page. But they wanted their own, separate identity.”

One of the first things the group did was display a new section logo. “Somebody’s wife was a graphic designer at an advertising agency,” Henderson notes. The logo was in a different graphical style from what NOBA uses for its logos, and could not easily be integrated into the bar’s other materials, she says.

“You want it to be consistent, and a consistent message,” she advises, “so that people know when they’re going to look for you that they’re getting consistent types of information.”

That was followed by a graphic for a section event that was “not in keeping with the bar’s quality standards,” Henderson recalls, adding that the graphic was linked to the work email address of the person running the event, instead of to the bar’s website.

Links on the section page presented their own set of problems, Henderson says. In some cases, they linked to incorrect information, and in others, they linked to work emails of section members. The problem with the latter was that when people switched firms or changed email addresses, the section was not always diligent about updating the information, so people would send emails that were not answered.

In addition to all of that, nonmembers, spammers, and even competing CLE providers began to post on the page, so that the section was, in effect, facilitating advertising for NOBA’s competitors. That also violated a long-standing NOBA policy that the bar only publicizes activities of legally affiliated organizations, and never publicizes competing entities’ CLE or social programs.

The page also began showing irrelevant information, such as listings of concerts being given by performers who were friends of section members.

The problem with that, Henderson explains, is that then “there’s confusion over ‘Where is the bar’s information? I need to get ethics and professionalism programs really fast this week, or I’m not going to be compliant for CLE,’ and they can’t find the bar association’s information.”

Compounding these problems was that after the initial burst of enthusiasm among section members to maintain the page, things began to go downhill. “It starts off that way, but then life intervenes,” Henderson believes. “After a while, the energy dissipates or gets directed into other things, and the page gets left to languish.”

This left it up to NOBA’s small staff to monitor the page so spam and inappropriate content could be removed. Henderson applauds larger bars that are able to devote full-time staff to social media efforts, but says that is not possible in her situation.

NOBA solved the problem by offering to post information submitted by sections and other entities to the bar’s one Facebook page and one website. It’s important to provide the outlet for those groups that want to be active online, Henderson notes: “If you say ‘no,’ it’s really easy for them to set it up on their own.”

With the current system, she adds, sections are happy, and the staff is able to manage the workload.

Questions of control

The Vermont Bar Association is now looking at the possibility of one or more groups wanting to set up an independent Facebook page and is considering the pros and cons of that, says Kevin Ryan, the bar’s director of education and communication. The bar’s sections and divisions currently use Listservs to handle communication within the group. From time to time, some “rogue messages” may appear on the lists, and such issues are usually handled by a phone call to the person who posted the message, Ryan says.

On a closed system such as a Listserv, he notes, the only people who can see the offending text are section members. If the group had a Facebook page and someone posted the same information, it would be visible to anyone who viewed the page, in most cases.

“Anything that gets posted there is a reflection of the association,” Ryan says. “We don't want it to look like an official position of the association.” The VBA would post some type of disclaimer on the page if it were to be set up, he adds, but he wonders how effective a disclaimer will be when people are reading something that has the bar’s name on it.

Ultimately, Ryan believes, Vermont and many other bars might follow the example set by the State Bar of Texas with its private social media network, the Texas Bar Circle.

If recent conversations on the Listserv for the NABE Communications Section are any indication, many bars have faced similar questions regarding Facebook pages or other online platforms for individual sections. While they have adopted a range of approaches, most seem to prefer that a staff person play some administrative role in order to maintain a certain level of control.

It’s worth noting that for its part, the State Bar of Texas, which has a presence on both Facebook and Twitter (in addition to its members-only Texas Bar Circle), does allow sections to manage their own accounts on these social media platforms.

Many Texas bar sections have expressed interest in having their own websites and/or Facebook pages. With so many sections wanting an Internet presence, Tracy Nuckols, director of sections, was forced to make some “tactical decisions” about what her department could manage. If a section wants to have a website, she tells its leaders, “I will build your website and post your content for you.” This helps to ensure that if some content that may inadvertently be inappropriate is submitted, she can catch it and talk with section leaders about how to make the content more suitable.

When it comes to sites such as Facebook, however, sections are on their own. “We will not support or moderate Facebook pages,” Nuckols says. “We don’t have enough staff.”

Nuckols recognizes that there is the potential for problematic content to pop up on Facebook pages, but she has seen that there is generally “nominal” section participation on the pages that have been set up. “So far,” she says, “it’s much ado about nothing.”

To learn more about how bars handle social media use by sections and other entities—and how they manage all other aspects of social media—see the actual policies compiled by the ABA Division for Bar Services at its social media resource page.