When to Engage (or not) in The Social Media Conversation

Volume 38 Number 1


About the Author

John Hellerman is the co-founder of Hellerman Baretz Communications (hellermanbaretz.com), an award-winning strategic communications agency representing many of the world’s leading law firms, consulting firms and financial services companies.


Rudy Burwell is Executive VP of HBC’s crisis communications and litigation PR practice. He retired with over 20 years of service as an Army Colonel, managing the media operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom and most recently serving as director communications for the Army Reserve.

Earlier this year the Red Cross faced a crisis when a young staffer accidentally used the company’s Twitter handle to send the following tweet to the nonprofit’s hundreds of thousands of followers:  “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.”

The Red Cross communications team, scrambling in the dead of night, came up with this response, posted shortly afterward: “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”

What lessons can law firms learn from this (apart from ‘don’t drink and tweet’)?

First and foremost, it is important for law firms to remember that threats to the firm’s reputation come from within as frequently (or more frequently) as they do from the outside. Take, for example, the recent spate of law firm layoffs. The pre-layoff leaks to blogs such as Above the Law left many firms scrambling to put together damage control plans. What can firms do to protect themselves from threats to their reputation, whether errant or intentional?

Don’t Swim Against the Tide

Banning the use of social media by your attorneys and employees is a bad idea. It is simply an impossible task. And why would you want to? As Pete Snyder, CEO and Founder of New Media Strategies states: “Today the world is in constant conversation; if you are not active in that conversation with your clients and in your industry, you are going to be left behind.” View your employees’ voices as powerful marketing tools for your organization.

However, it is critical to provide appropriate company-wide guidelines for the use of social media and to make sure everyone understands those guidelines. “Create a social media policy and stick to it,” says Viveka von Rosen, CEO of Linked Into Business. “Have employees sign your social media policy, agreeing, among other things, not to defame your firm. Then, if employees violate the policy, you have recourse.”

Understand the Tools Before You Use Them

Ensure your organization is using social media tools appropriately. Tools like HootSuite and TweetDeck are powerful, enabling you to manage multiple social media accounts at once.

However, that power can be your downfall. If your employees are not using the appropriate security settings on these tools, it might be easier to slide from one account to another, posting something that is inappropriate or meant for personal consumption to “professional” or “corporate” accounts. One need only look as far as Congressman Anthony Weiner’s Twitter scandal for proof of this.

Be Genuine

Finally, if a genuine flub does occur, depending on its content, don’t be afraid to think outside the box in your response.  “Showing you are human is critically important to corporations and law firms. The age of controlling the message from the ivory tower is over,” says Snyder.

With its tongue-in-cheek response to its employee’s flub, the Red Cross won respect and actually ended up raising money through the incident. Dogfish Head beer (the subject of the original tweet) acknowledged the incident by asking fans to donate to the Red Cross on Twitter. The Red Cross, in turn, thanked their fans for understanding that a 130-year-old humanitarian organization is made up of humans, and building upon the Dogfish Head support, tweeted: “Please join Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in raising money for the American Red Cross. If you’re interested in donating a pint, please click here to learn more about Red Cross blood drives. Note: Alcohol can often make you more dehydrated. Dogfish Head recommends not drinking immediately before or after donating!”

But what about handling those threats that are more sinister than mere flubs?

Build Your Network Before You Need it

In the case of a firm facing negative comments online—whether on blog posts, Twitter, Facebook, etc.—“the best defense is a good offense,” says Snyder. “Are you regularly telling your success stories? Are you talking about your pro bono work? Are you connecting with your audience on a regular basis?” Having a solid base of fans and followers will help protect your reputation in the event that someone tries to sully it, as your supporters will jump to your defense.

Unfortunately, connecting and nurturing relationships online is where law firms most frequently fail. Most law firm Twitter accounts, for example, are more boring than waiting for a bus.

As Jordan Furlong on the popular Stem Legal blog observes: “I’ve reviewed dozens of law firm Twitter accounts, some owned by global giants and some by midsize or smaller operations, and in almost every instance I’ve come away shaking my head.” According to Furlong, here’s what a typical law firm Twitter account contains:

  • Copied-and-pasted headlines from the firm’s press releases, with a link thereto;
  • Copied-and-pasted headlines from the firm’s newsletters or blogs, with a link thereto;
  • News that a lawyer at the firm has appeared in a media outlet, with a link thereto;
  • News that a lawyer at the firm has received an award or designation, with a link thereto; and
  • News that the firm has successfully completed a client engagement, with a link thereto.

Too frequently law firms hear the “media” component of social media, but forget the “social” component. The days of putting out cold press releases as a way of communicating with the world are over. Would you stand blank-faced at a cocktail party reciting the titles of your press releases? It’s not such a stretch to think of social media that way. “The rule of thumb is to handle social media encounters like real life,” says von Rosen. “You need to build rapport and a relationship with your audience—that relationship and those followers will be your best resource when facing adversity online.”

Think Before You Respond

When an attack comes, carefully assessing the author is also critical. “You don’t swing at every pitch out there,” says Snyder. “Sometimes engaging is a bad thing because it adds credence to the situation.”

“In most cases, you can get a sense of who the person is by looking at his content,” says von Rosen. “If someone is slandering you online, chances are most of his content is negative, and if this is the case, it is best to just ignore him.”

Former head of communications for the Army Reserve, and current Executive Vice President for crisis communications and litigation PR at Hellerman Baretz Communications, Rudy Burwell agrees. “If you have a strong brand and loyal following, I find that your audience can be self-policing on social media sites. During my tenure as the communications director for the Army Reserve, we would often let our own followers respond to controversial posts, and usually after ‘spirited’ debate, the issue was settled without our having to intercede.”

The CEO for Reputation.com, Michael Fertik, made a similar case in Bloomberg Businessweek’s First Annual “How To” Guide. “If someone attacks you online, it’s almost always best to ignore it. You only want to respond if the material is very visible and demonstrably false. Otherwise, you risk the ‘Streisand Effect,’ named for Barbra. In 2003, her lawyer sent a letter to a paparazzo who had photographed her house. It only called attention to the photo. Just don’t respond.” Fertik’s larger point was that organizations need to manage their digital presence before controversy hits. You have to “own” your online real estate and ensure that when people Google your organization, they will see all of the positive and true information about your company.

How Do You Protect Yourself?

According to Vivienne Storey, General Manager and Social Media Advocate for Blands Law, you first have to develop solid social media policies. The policies should be custom-made to the organization’s business objectives and focused on what they want to achieve. Storey says any policy memo should consider the following factors:

  • The nature of conduct that the employer seeks to protect itself against;
  • To whom should such a policy apply (e.g., the entire business or levels within the business);
  • The nature of control over social media use (e.g., a total ban, limited use, total accessibility);
  • Authority limits or restrictions for use (e.g., is permission required, content pre-approval, who is responsible for such approvals);
  • What can or cannot be discussed on social media forums;
  • What logos, icons and ideas can or cannot be published on social media forums;
  • What disclaimers or other information must be included when participating in a social media forum;
  • The nature of behavior that is acceptable or unacceptable;
  • When it is and isn’t acceptable to use or participate in a social media forum;
  • Reporting any breach; and
  • Consequences of breach.

Unfortunately the lack of coherent social media policies in the workplace—coupled with the court’s general lack of understanding of the medium—has resulted in conflicting case decisions, particularly when it comes to what is discoverable. According to a client alert issued by Armstrong Teasdale LLC last year, some decisions (such as Crispin v. Christian Audigier, Inc.) said comments on social media sites that were only available to a select group were protected, while other cases (Romano v. Steelcase, Inc. and McMillen v. Hummingbird Speedway) gave greater access to a person’s social media account in court. Suffice to say, this topic will be evolving case law in the courts, underscoring the need for rigorous policies and training of employees on the use of social media.

While many of the items discussed in this article seem daunting, the worst mistake organizations can make is to not get involved with social media at all. The bottom line is that just because your company has decided not to join the digital conversation, doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t happening. People are indeed having a conversation about your company and your brand, and your reputation could suffer because of short-sightedness.


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