One bright and sunny morning, you turn on your computer, fire up your Web browser, and type your bar’s name into the Google search box, just to see what pages of your Web site come up first. There among the results is a link to your Facebook page, with a reference to your dues structure in the excerpt.
“That’s funny,” you think. “I don’t remember us setting up a Facebook page.” So you click through and find there is a page with your bar’s name at the top, a listing of people who’ve joined the group, and a spirited discussion of your recent dues hike, much of it negative in tone.
Suddenly clouds cover up the sun, a small shiver runs down your spine, and you realize that something has gotten out of control somewhere.
Think it can’t happen? With social media sites making it ever easier to set up a presence, and tech-savvy mem-bers gathering on those sites, those who watch tech trends say that if you aren’t running your own area, it’s probably just a matter of time before some of your members—and potential members—take matters into their own hands.
“You need to stake your claim and own it,” advises Catherine Sanders Reach, director of the ABA Legal Tech-nology Resource Center. “Otherwise, someone will go out and do it for you, and what do you do then? How do you stop them?”
What’s more, Reach says, even if you can stop such a group, your efforts might backfire. “What will happen if you go out and say, ‘OK, you group of 35 people who’ve decided to create a rogue Facebook page for XYZ Bar Association, we’re not going to let you do this anymore’?” she asks. The likely answer, she believes, is that you will have 35 people who are now angry at your bar and will probably tell others about the experience.
When it comes to putting your bar on a social media site, “somebody’s going to do it,” agrees Pat Yevics, direc-tor of law office management assistance at the Maryland State Bar Association. “You don’t want to be left behind.”
So, are there bands of roaming lawyers—or nonlawyers—out there setting up unauthorized “Bar Association” pages and looking at your bar next? Probably not, but the possibility that lawyers in your target market are commu-nicating with each other online without you may be a good reason to consider establishing your bar on social media.
“If individuals go in and create a space called ‘XYZ Bar Association,’ there are intellectual property issues about the content,” says Reach, noting that some of those issues would involve questions about who owns and maintains the content. “In my mind, the bar would be better off creating its own space and asking its members what they would like to see on it. At least then, the pages would be created by bar staff and would give the bar a bit more con-trol.”
How much control should you have?
Control is a word that pops up frequently in discussions of bars using social media, especially public ones such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, which are the main focus of this article.
“Social media,” which is also called “social networking” and used to be lumped into “Web 2.0,” is supposed to be all about allowing your members to interact with you (and, possibly, each other) online, and in some cases add their content to the mix. That’s fine, as long as the comments are either positive or not related to opinions about the bar or its activities. But what if your members become critical of something?
“By the bar having a presence out there, are you making it more likely that people will post these critical things, or will those tools be available to people who want to criticize, whether or not you’re involved?” asks Jim Calloway, director of the Management Assistance Program at the Oklahoma Bar Association.
Bars that establish themselves on LinkedIn and Facebook, where user content can appear directly on their areas, are faced with some key decisions about how much user participation they want to allow, and how much control they want to have over what appears on their page.
“There’s a continuum of ‘control of the message’ at one end, and a ‘true social networking, rich community ex-perience’ at the other,” Calloway notes. “I think bars have to make policy decisions about where they want to strike a balance. [Once] you participate, you’re forced to make the decision about how you strike the balance.”
While bars are used to deciding and crafting the message they want to send, many users of social media are used to participating in forums where people can say pretty much whatever they want. If you restrict what people can say too harshly, Calloway believes, you run the risk of them thinking that you are not relevant in the social media arena.
“You could also make the argument that you’re better off having them post negative things on your site, out in the open, than on the numerous other outlets where many people may see it, but you may never learn of it.
“I would think that most bars will have a hard time dealing with that, but that’s what social media is about.” But Calloway also says he sees valid arguments on both sides of the question and that individual bars need to decide what’s best for them.
One proponent of a more open approach is Lindy Dreyer, chief social media marketer for SocialFish, which ad-vises companies and associations on their social media options. Dreyer says listening to its members will often guide an association to the right approach.
“A lot of times, your community, on its own, will decide what it wants,” she says. “These groups are so easy to create that if you put a lot of limits on it, and that’s not something that your community wanted in the first place, they’re just going to start their own.”
Adds Bonnie Sashin, “If you’re using social media, you need to have a sense of optimism.” Sashin, communica-tions director for the Boston Bar Association, which is involved with Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, believes that unless a post is offensive or profane, bars should leave it up. “You’d be surprised how many members of the com-munity will jump on board to correct that person,” she notes.
“Some people overestimate the potential damage of negative comments,” Sashin adds. “We can’t feel so defen-sive. We have to be open to criticism and discussion.” As for negative comments being spread to a wide audience, Sashin jokes, “You should be so lucky that thousands of people are hearing about your bar association!”
But many bar leaders prefer a more hands-on approach and believe an element of control is important in tying the bar’s social media use in with its overall communications plan and the bar’s mission. “I would rather be in control of that,” says Dan Wise, communications director for the New Hampshire Bar Association, which has a presence on LinkedIn and Facebook. “As the administrator, you have the opportunity to delete things that are objectionable or contrary to the mission of the bar association.”
While he acknowledges that there may be some backlash from members if content were removed because it was critical of the NHBA, Wise says, “that’s part of our responsibility, to safeguard the reputation of the bar.”
Which one, or two … or more?
You may have noticed that many experts and bar leaders are involved not with just Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, but with two or three of those. And if we broaden “social media” to include video sharing sites such as YouTube and photo sharing ones such as Google’s Picasa, it turns out that some bars—including the Boston Bar Association—are involved with not one, but five or more such sites. If you factor in older technologies that are still going strong, such as Listservs and blogs, that’s a whole lot of communicating going on.
Many say that if you’re going to reach out to members in this way, you should choose a couple or a few different sites, since different members prefer different ones, and since each site has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Yvonne McGhee, executive director of the Fairfax (Va.) Bar Association and a confessed Internet addict, set up her bar’s presence on Twitter about a year ago. That led to areas on Facebook and LinkedIn. She considers the three-part effort “a great new resource to do outreach in an innovative format to our members.”
McGhee likes social media both as a way for her bar to connect with its members, and for its members to connect with each other. For example, if a section uses Facebook to invite members to an event, members can see who has indicated that they plan to attend. If a member knows others who are attending, that member may then be more in-clined to attend.
McGhee is also the driving force behind the National Association of Bar Executives’ group on LinkedIn, which is considered the most business-oriented of the three most widely known social media sites. NABE also has several Listservs, and those continue to thrive. But McGhee says the Listserv discussions tend to focus on particular ques-tions and answers. At a site such as LinkedIn, she explains, members can also find out more about their colleagues, see who they have recommended for certain services, and leave private messages for each other.
“It helps to create a network of people to use for consulting, filling job openings,” and similar functions, McGhee says.
The Minnesota State Bar Association is covering all its bets in the social media arena. In addition to appearing on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, the MSBA set up its own network, called MyPractice, on the social networking site ning.com, which allows any group to set up a network for low or no cost, depending on whether you’re willing to view advertisements. MyPractice came first for MSBA, according to Gregory Luce, the bar’s practice develop-ment director.
As with many of the other bar social media pioneers, Luce’s personal interest in the technology led to an exami-nation of whether social media could be used as an enhancement to member services.
“It’s also attorneys who are tech savvy saying that this is something we need to be involved in. We’re really try-ing to position the association to be ready for whatever future developments there are,” Luce says. “I think that’s where most associations are. Get in a good position so that when there is a tipping point, and social media becomes ‘the medium,’ you’re ready with the knowledge and resources to handle it.”
Having MyPractice as the bar’s own social media site allows the MSBA to control registration access and to set ground rules for participation. It allows the bar to eventually offer members more access than nonmembers, Luce says, but also to allow nonmembers enough of a taste to be enticed to join.
The State Bar of Texas, which offers Texas Bar Circle, hosted by Affinity Circles, Inc. (www.texasbarcircle. af-finitycircles.com) and the ABA, which rolled out its Legally Minded site (www.legallyminded.com) late last year, are two other bars that consider their self-hosted social networks to be a vital way to reach out to members and foster communication among them.
What if your bar is new to this, has a small staff with limited time, and feels a little intimidated by the notion of setting up, updating, and checking areas on several different sites? Another approach is to carefully select one site to focus on now.
That’s just what the San Fernando Valley (Calif.) Bar Association has done. Executive Director Elizabeth Post at-tended a workshop on building an online community and thought it was worth exploring the idea for her bar. She asked Angela Hutchinson, the bar’s editor and communications manager, to explore a few options.
Hutchinson spent a month researching Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, seeing how they worked and measuring the fit for her members. Ultimately, she recommended that the bar develop a presence on Twitter.
“Twitter is newer, more in the here and now,” she believes. “Facebook is more ‘been here, done that.’ ” Also, she thinks her members will like the quickness of posting within Twitter’s 140-character-per-post limit, and getting prompt responses from fellow members.
Beware the overshare
Having staff members who participate in social media is a plus when it comes to learning about how the various networks operate and which one or several may be best for your association. But it also raises some potential issues that experts advise you to think about before diving in. Many of these issues involve the intermingling of the profes-sional and the personal—a sometimes uneasy blend that is puzzling for many social media users and their employ-ers.
Here’s one such question: If an employee has a Facebook account in which he or she lists the bar as employer, what restrictions, if any, can or should you place on the text or photos that may be posted on that account?
“As with many things in life, the standard is probably different for the executive director and the mailroom clerk,” says Oklahoma’s Calloway. “For those who have a high profile with the bar, remember that anything you post on the Internet can be seen by anybody.” Even a page that does not mention the bar at all could prove problem-atic if the employee is recognizable and doing something that reflects poorly on the bar, he adds.
Other potential dilemmas include whether bar staff should be “friends” with members, and even whether staff su-pervisors and subordinates should “friend” each other. Calloway says these questions need to be answered by each bar in whatever way works best for that bar, but they should be discussed beforehand, so everyone is clear on what is expected.
“People have different tolerances,” he notes. “There’s a younger generation that views certain words as very of-fensive, and you skip a decade or two in either direction and you find people who aren’t that sensitive to those words.”
Why are we doing this, again?
With all the issues to consider, and with the time it takes to research, set up, and maintain one or more areas on the sites, is it worth it in the long run? All of those interviewed for this article, whether they update their areas once a day or once a month, believe it is time well spent. More than 500 bars have set up areas on Facebook alone.
For Elizabeth Derrico, associate director of the ABA Division for Bar Services, having access to social media tools has made it easier to keep in touch with various bars around the country, including smaller ones that she might not normally be in touch with, but which have set up social networking areas that she can follow.
Derrico says a number of bars are finding early success in their online efforts, especially those bars that allow for true two-way communication rather than making every tweet or status update a sales pitch for bar events and prod-ucts.
“This is a set of tools that should be used to build relationships,” Derrico stresses. “It’s not about selling books or events.”
She cites recent examples of associations that were sending Twitter updates from their annual meeting, which al-lowed those who couldn’t attend to know what they missed. Helping members understand how they can use social media for their own practices by setting an example for them is another useful purpose in going online, Derrico adds.
SocialFish’s Dreyer sees a “natural connection” between a bar presenting CLE programming and having an online presence. In addition to letting members know about programs, bars could encourage members to use the site as a way to discuss the issues raised at the presentation, and thus, to “extend the life” of professional development efforts.
The Boston Bar Association is another group that recently found a novel way to increase connection—and event attendance—by helping online and in-person communication reinforce each other. The BBA sponsored a “Social Media Meetup,” where people were notified through an e-flyer and through Twitter about the plans. More than 150 people showed up for the event, which included talks by social media experts.
“We set up a hashtag [see “A social media glossary,” page 10], and had a few people who were live tweeting,” Sashin says, adding that more such events are planned for the future.
The ever-expanding portfolio
While social media sites are getting a lot of attention in the traditional media, there aren’t many in the bar world who believe they are ready to replace any of the other forms of communication bar leaders use. E-mail, newsletters, Listservs, print publications, and the rest still account for the lion’s share of attention, and likely will continue to do so until there is a generational change in membership and leadership, and more people who have grown up using social media tools will come to expect bars to provide them—even if it means eliminating some of the older forms of communication.
Until that time, Sashin believes, “Just because [some] people aren’t using it now, doesn’t mean they won’t be. Bar associations need to take risks. Communications people need to take risks. Life has no guarantees.
“The only guarantee is that if you don’t innovate, you’ll still be sending out your hardcopy newsletter by bulk mail, and reaching members six weeks later.”
What’s your policy?
For many bars, social media is a frontier not adequately addressed in their existing policies and procedures. Over the summer, several members of the NABE Communications Section worked together on policy recommendations to help bars navigate some of the issues addressed in this article.
At press time, the group was working on a draft; look for more information in a future issue of Bar Leader.
A social media glossary
Like any new technology or trend, social media has a language all its own. Here are some key terms:
| Hashtag. Within Twitter, this refers to a # symbol followed by a keyword. Adding these within your posts can increase your visibility because many people who want to track particular subjects search for particular hashtags. For example, in an emergency situation, a hashtag of #chicagofire within your post could let peo-ple know that you are adding updates on the status of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, or other relevant information. They could then search for all posts by you or anyone else who used that hashtag. | Tweet. A noun or a verb; refers to the act of sending a post to Twitter, or the post itself. Has led to a rash of twerrible puns. | Tweetdeck. This is a free piece of software (from www.tweetdeck.com) you can use to organize your Twitter materials, send tweets from, etc. Also can be used to post updates to Facebook. The main advantage to it is that you don’t have to log in to the services to do quick checks or updates. | Friends. In Facebook, friends are those who have agreed to share information and updates with you on a two-way basis. You are notified when they update their status, and vice versa. | Fans. Facebook users who agree to be notified of updates to your business presence. Unlike friends, you do not receive notifications of your fans’ updates. Many associations set themselves up so that they only can have fans. One advantage is that they are not then inundated with personal updates. | Followers. On Twitter, followers are those who subscribe to your updates. They are notified when you post an update, although nonfollowers can also read your post archives.
New here? Need a little help?
Are you flustered by Facebook? Lost in LinkedIn? When it comes to Twitter, do you feel like a twit?
Here is contact information for the experts and bar leaders referenced in this article. Some offered Twitter ad-dresses and others offered e-mail, but all said they’d be happy to hear from new social media users who could use a little help. Note that the Twitter addresses are the ones without an @ or a .org:
| Jim Calloway, Oklahoma Bar Association: jimcalloway | Elizabeth Derrico, American Bar Association: ABABarServices | Lindy Dreyer, SocialFish: lindydreyer | Angela Hutchinson, San Fernando Valley (Calif.) Bar Association: firstname.lastname@example.org | Gregory Luce, Minnesota State Bar Association: mypractice | Yvonne McGhee, Fairfax (Va.) Bar Association: email@example.com | Catherine Sanders Reach, American Bar Association: firstname.lastname@example.org | Bonnie Sashin, Boston Bar Association: email@example.com | Dan Wise, New Hampshire Bar Association: firstname.lastname@example.org | Pat Yevics, Maryland State Bar Association: msbaloma