December 01, 2014 Asked and Answered

How can you use social media responsibly to promote your clients’ cases? (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Social media is an easy (and often free) tool that litigators can use to share their clients’ stories. But how much is too much, and what if you post something that you’ll regret later?

In this month’s Asked and Answered podcast, we speak with Anthony C. Johnson, a plaintiffs personal injury lawyer who previously owned a search engine optimization and marketing company. He shares with moderator Stephanie Francis Ward some ideas about using Twitter, Facebook—and even Instagram—in a mindful manner.

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Francis Ward: Scroll through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and you can get a good sense of popular topics, as well as how people feel about them. If you’re a litigator using social media, you might have success suggesting how people should feel about your client’s position. And you can use the platforms to gather more support.

I’m Stephanie Francis Ward. And on today’s Asked and Answered, I’m discussing how litigators can do that, with Anthony Johnson, an Arkansas plaintiff personal injury lawyer who used to own a search-engine-optimization and marketing company. Anthony, what do lawyers need to think about before using social media to share a client’s story?

Anthony C. Johnson: There’s probably a few things that I think you need to consider, first of all. One, it depends on if you’re sharing the story either during or pre-litigation, there’s issues going on with that. If it’s pre-litigation, of course anything you put out into the blogosphere or the social media, you’ve got to think about that it might be discoverable in trial. There are a lot of clients out there, just depending on who you’re dealing with, that either you do or don’t want that story told.

So making sure that you have the right client behind you on the story; also one that doesn’t take a story further than you intended it to go. There’s a lot of trouble in controlling the breadth of anything you put in the internet.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think you should—I guess for lack of a better term—maybe workshop your tweets or posts or whatever with other lawyers who are involved with the case, before you put something up? Because I think what you said about the issue of it perhaps as being discoverable, because it may not occur to you right away.

Anthony C. Johnson: Yes, definitely if you have any kind of co-counsel or joint defendants or joint plaintiffs or whatnot in the litigation. We always run it by them and kind of do a little workshop on whether or not the strategy of using social media or not is a viable one, pretrial. Post-trial, things are less of an issue, of course, because we’ve already done everything and you have less of a worry there and really they have less of a concern. It’s really more about—post-trial it’s about just telling a story and educating the public on it and what happened, and it’s really about your clients going to that point. But yeah, pretrial, you don’t always consider your counsel, and I think it’s a good idea to workshop that.

For instance, one of our first big litigations is still going on, but it’s the oil spill, the Exxon oil spill down in Mayflower. And there’s a lot of traction on social media, especially with one of our clients who started a community page and has 5500 likes right now and a lot of community involvement and commenting. We represent the person that kind of curates all that content.

And yeah, it’s something that we have to be in on every interview, we have to continually talk to her, talk to our co-counsel about it, just to make sure that nothing’s going on there that might jeopardize what we’re doing from a litigation standpoint.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think then perhaps the most genuine way to get your clients’ story out is to let them tell it themselves? Because on the one hand, it seems like yes, but on the other hand that could backfire, too, because your client probably isn’t a lawyer.

Anthony C. Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. Anytime you can get a first-person perspective on a story, you’ve got to have that. But when it comes to a client and litigation, you’ve got to have a filter on that client’s perspective. And so we try—and of course this is impossible to guarantee—but any time we kind of allow one of our clients to tell that story, we try to have an attorney that supervises that content, either after the fact or any time it’s a larger piece or an interview or something like that; we try to actually be on the call and actually have oversight on what kind of questions and things happen.

Just in case. Not that—we don’t want to prohibit the story from getting cold, but just in case there’s some legal implications on some question or some part of that story.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think that lawyers—is it a good idea for them to handle social media themselves? Or perhaps is it better for them to hire someone who only does social media and have them manage it, particularly on a larger case?

Anthony C. Johnson: I think that we always have—and I think that it should be this way—you’ve got to have an attorney manage the social media perspective. Now, that being said, you can have people assist you on kind of rolling it out, but I would always have at least one attorney that has kind of final say, oversight on what goes out and what’s going on. Because anyone you hire in the search engine or social media space isn’t going to understand the courts and litigation and what can and can’t be said, and whether there’s legal ramifications on some minute part of the case that’s very important. And so we always have an attorney either that reads every post on certain community pages or that certain people are putting online, or if there’s any types of interviews that may be republished on social media, we always have someone on the phone.

So I think the lawyer should definitely in the end handle the social media. But if you need some assistance on kind of doing the legwork on getting some of the content or the research on the social media, I think that can be assisted by marketing companies or whatnot.

Stephanie Francis Ward: If you see something negative about a case you’re involved with on social media, is it sometimes a good idea to comment? Or is it more an issue of “don’t engage”?

Anthony C. Johnson: That’s really funny. Me and my law partner, we’re kind of a yin and yang, I guess, to some of these types of arguments. Because I’m always like, “Any publicity is good publicity!” kind of thing, and so I kind of want to stir the pot. And he’s kind of very conservative. But usually what we agree to and what we think is the best practice is: If someone has negative publicity, if it’s pre-litigation, we always kind of go with, “Don’t engage.” That’s the kind of thing that’s going to get traction, and it’s going to get traction to an issue that is one we already obviously disagree with, and so we just don’t bother with it.

If it gets traction on its own or gets picked up by news or stuff like that, then yeah, it’s time to maybe step in and make a comment. I’d make it succinct and establish that we disagree and then move on with it. But if it’s post-litigation and someone’s commenting on it and everything is already kind of said and done, then yeah, it goes back to “any time we can get traction or get the conversation moving in the social sphere, it’s good to have that conversation because it makes awareness.”

And maybe some people agree with the negative feedback or maybe some people don’t, but either way it kind of gets the story out there and the key is to get the story told, especially after the fact where it’s not going to hurt the case.

Now, also one thing we do on social media, let’s say if it’s a property that we own, we always set comments to be reviewed before published. If it’s a negative and we don’t want to cause that dichotomy of arguing with each other, we just don’t allow it to be published on the page.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Say that you share something on social media for your client which you think is good—and then it backfires and people use your post to ridicule your client and his or her position. Do you have any advice for dealing with that?

Anthony C. Johnson: Yeah. Really the nature of the Internet is that you never know what’s going to take off. And sometimes there may be some negative connotation or some meme or something like that that spirals out of control to where it has a negative outlook on the story you’re trying to tell.

So of course we try to rebut that negative connotation by all means possible from our own end, but inherently with us—and with any law firm—the reach of how much we can actively distribute our content, whether that be through our followers on Facebook, our fans on Facebook, our followers on Twitter, it’s just not that far. It’s not as far as some content that goes viral throughout the Internet.

And so really there’s nothing you can do about that except for take a stance on your own end saying, “That’s not what I meant,” and try and do that. And that’s a risk you take. But I think it’s a risk worth taking. Usually when there’s a sincere story about a person that matters, and if you try to take the content that way, hopefully it doesn’t get picked up like that and taken into a negative context. But that’s the kind of risk you take in publishing online.

Stephanie Francis Ward: We’re going to take a short break to hear from our sponsor. When we come back, we’ll hear about the number of posts that are appropriate when using social media to share your client’s story.

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Stephanie Francis Ward: So if you’re using social media to get a client’s story out, Anthony, how many posts do you think you should do a day?

Anthony C. Johnson: It’s interesting to think about that. We’ve been in a lot of discussions about that in the content marketing front. Usually what we do is —

Stephanie Francis Ward: Maybe it’s the classic answer: “It depends.”

Anthony C. Johnson: Yeah, exactly. But usually—so the story—a lot of platforms you can’t put the whole story on the platform. So usually the actual story that’s either on your own blog on your website or on a video, or on a link to another story, and usually you’re using social media to distribute and bring awareness to your followership and whatnot, and actually link them to maybe another third-party platform.

So that’s kind of how we usually do it. We usually have to have a blog or something like that. And then it depends on whether you have a kind of teaser story, maybe a three-part story on your client rather than a kind of one blog-type story.

But either way—I was just at a conference, actually, on social media and content marketing. And it was very interesting because there’s a concept called “comment velocity.” And if you want your—any type of blog or content or something else about a law firm or litigation to go viral or to get that kind of velocity, you really have about 24 hours to get traction on it. And so what we say is that you want to post on Facebook about three to seven times, and at least three times on the first day. And then you want to put on LinkedIn, I think is another good platform, especially when you’re going to—because as lawyers, we have two audiences and we kind of break it out into this when it comes to a marketing standpoint.

We have the consumer audience, which is our clients and or future clients, and then we have the kind of “B2B” or business-to-business audience which is other attorneys. Because a lot of our business comes from referral work from other attorneys. And so when you look at it from the B2B perspective, I think it’s really important to share your things on something like LinkedIn. I would actually do it more frequently on LinkedIn, because when you do your status updates or whatnot on LinkedIn, just people aren’t on there as much. People are working more, people don’t go there really for their news much. So you want a lot more frequency.

So we say post five to seven times on your first day on LinkedIn, just to try to get more coverage with your connections there. And that’s more of your B2B, hopefully your lawyer friends and all that are on LinkedIn social networks. But you have to do it quickly, and you have to do it throughout the day. There’s a lot of things you can do to try to get other people to pick it up. If you make a comment about a news station that did a quote, or you make a comment about a public figure or a thought leader in your industry, we try and make sure to comment on them on the story because it’s more likely that they pick it up and re-tweet it, or link to it on their Facebook or Twitter or whatnot.

In the tech industry they call that “ego baiting,” where basically you say something or you link to something and say, “Hey, check this out, we used your comment on a blog.” And you hope that they tweet on it, and they might be a news station and might have 100,000 Twitter followers, whereas a law firm may have 10 or zero if they have Twitter. It’s always good to try to get other people and use their authority, kind of piggyback on that authority to try to get the most breadth and coverage for your story.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I want to make sure I understand you correctly. You’re saying it might be a good idea to post links on Facebook seven times a day, approximately?

Anthony C. Johnson: Yes. If you really are wanting to push out one story—I mean I wouldn’t do this with every single story you write. But if it’s something that you really want to get this out, I would post it from three to seven times—three or four in the first day, different times a day. And then maybe a couple other times, like if it’s a Monday, I would definitely do the weekend. Social media traction works really well on the weekends against consumer audiences. And then LinkedIn, I would do even more than Facebook, because you just don’t have people logging in and checking people’s statuses on LinkedIn as much.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Silly question I guess, but do you every hear from lawyers if you chatted about this, maybe there’s a fair “gosh, I don’t want to annoy someone with all these posts?”

Anthony C. Johnson: Yeah, we get that a lot. You know what, in the end, the people that are following you on your Facebook page or whatnot, I don’t think that’s an issue as much as people think it is. It is a concern, though. But what we do is that each Facebook post we put up, we change the title and we change the blurb, and so maybe the first one will say, “Julie’s story of triumph” or something like that, and it has a little description under it. The next one will say, “Check out a local story in your neighborhood that might concern the safety of your children.” You know, stuff like that.

So you change the headline, you change the description and unless someone clicks on that same link that links over to your blog every single one of seven times—which sometimes happens—they think it’s different information every time. And then we also do A/B testing on those headlines accordingly.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. Now, you mentioned LinkedIn. What are some other platforms you think are great for sharing your clients’ stories?

Anthony C. Johnson: I tell a lot of people that any platform that you have a followship and an audience that cares about the story is a good platform to publish on, because there’s a lot of them now. And depending on who you’re talking to, they may be real big into Twitter, which is one of the main three—probably Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn are kind of your primary ones.

But then even if you say someone’s real big on Pinterest or real big on Instagram or something like that, and they already have that audience, any time you have an audience that believes in you and wants to read about the content you produce, I would say those would be good ones to push out there.

There’s always new-forming ones that you want to publish on. YouTube is another platform. If it’s a video-based content, you want to definitely put it on YouTube. That’s kind of the king of video when it comes to that regard. So a lot of avenues that you can go to.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So with YouTube, which obviously YouTube is incredibly popular, at the same time I think that shooting and editing video that looks professional enough to put up is hard if you don’t know what you’re doing, and also it’s expensive if you have to hire someone. What do you think about lawyers using YouTube to get their stories out? Is it worth it to hire a videographer?

Anthony C. Johnson: No. I think that there’s no reason to hire one. Unless you’re doing something that is—you know, you’re in a run of national advertising or something like that and it’s got to look perfect. If you’re doing something for web, especially when it comes to the story, shoot it on your iPhone. You don’t need super high-quality video beyond that that’s already on smartphones these days, because they’ll be too big if you shoot it on anything bigger than a cellphone or whatnot. I would definitely get like a tripod or something, so you’re not holding something and shaking everywhere. But I’ve seen a lot of people do really well on social media when it comes to litigation-specific landing pages and whatnot where they’ll have information.

But the guys who have a couple videos, even poorly shot videos brings another level of personal touch to the page and actually lets people see the attorney and talk with their own words. I think there’s a lot of value there. And so if you don’t have enough money to hire a videographer and all that, and it’s not something you’re going to use for some national campaign that’s going to be seen by millions of people, I’d say just do them in house. There’s free software to cut videos in-house that’s real simple to use. And if you don’t cut it, just do one shot, and do it on YouTube video, and maybe put a logo on the front of it.

YouTube is the #2 search engine in the world after Google. So not only for the search engine rankings and whatnot videos are great, and I would use YouTube for that, but bring some personality and some interest to social media. That’s just another thing that’s more niched and a little more kind of next-level than most people are doing, so it sets you apart.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. You mentioned Instagram, which is also very popular right now. What do you think about these sites that share images instead of words for lawyers? On the one hand those sites are very popular and they’re fun, but it also seems that lawyers perhaps are more comfortable storytelling with words rather than images.

Anthony C. Johnson: I think images are very powerful, obviously. I was reading a report on some of the top 10 reasons why content goes viral on watched stories and gets told and gets shared. And the two reasons that kind of set apart everything else are one, the headlines, and number two, the picture.

And so I have people that I’ve spoken to in this industry that joke that with the right headline and with the right picture, they’re like, “The story doesn’t even matter.” They said they can get a picture and a headline so great that they know it’s going to go viral just by that. Which, of course, you need to have the story because that’s what counts.

But it’s just amazing how much it matters, that few words and then that picture that actually draws people in. And so I think something like Instagram can be used in that manner to get people’s attention.

But in the end, kind of like what I was saying before, is that you’ve got to go to the main platforms. If your law firm doesn’t have a Facebook and a Twitter page, and even a LinkedIn page, you’ve got to get that. Because that’s where the majority of people are. But on these new platforms or these other kind of more niched platforms, like Instagram or Vine or Pinterest or whatnot, it really goes back to whether you have any traction on the platform. So if you have an Instagram user and you have 10,000 people looking at it, absolutely; put your picture up there and maybe in some way try to get some attention to the story.

It’s very difficult with pictures only to tell a full story. So, that’s kind of the other difficulty with Instagram, is you’d have to kind of link off the platform in order to actually tell a story. Unless you’re just some artistic savant, which there may be some lawyers out there that are like that; you know, these filmmaker type people that can tell the story with eight pictures. That’s just not my forte and I think most lawyers would say it’s not theirs. So unless you just have the knack for it and you have this usership, it’s hard for me to promote going to a platform that you might produce something great and then no one will ever see. So, I would say choose your platforms based on where your audience is.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. That’s everything I have for you, Anthony. Did you want to add anything else?

Anthony C. Johnson: My only advice to most lawyers, because most lawyers out there, from what I’ve experienced, kind of view social media as an after effect because everyone says they have to. Either that or their SEO company is kind of requiring it. You’ve got to just think in time.

I tell everyone to post, even if it’s personal or even if it’s promoting their story within their firm about their attorneys or their staff, I’d say just get started and have someone that posts every day or posts every week on it even. And just think about whenever your clients are telling their stories through trial or afterwards, whether they’re the kind of a person that wants to tell the story to the world.

And when you have that type of person, it’s a great type of client to dig into the facts and actually tell that story, because it helps both the client, the general public—and in the end, your law firm.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right, Anthony. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. And thank you for joining us. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and please join us next time for the next episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

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[End of Transcript]

Updated on Dec. 4 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Anthony C. Johnson, an Arkansas plaintiffs personal injury lawyer, is a partner with Johnson & Vines. Johnson is a former SEO/SEM/Web-development company owner who was featured by the ABA Journal as one of “America’s Techiest Lawyers” in 2012.