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There are more social media experts pontificating about how to get best returns from digital marketing than you can shake a stick at.  So let’s call a spade a spade and admit that the one thing that stops law firms from really getting it right is a natural, in-bred risk aversion.  The fact is you’re great lawyers and you’ve been trained to spot the pitfalls and problems in everything… and that’s why so many firms have been slow to get the best from social and digital technologies.

I often tell the story of the mid-tier firm I was working with on a new Twitter strategy.  They had spent months planning things out and getting set up and announced, at the end of the process, that they had managed to get confirmation that they only needed to get tweets signed off by two partners.  They were really proud of this.  I told them not to bother.

For me it’s very simple.  When firms appoint new partners and associates they do so assuming (sometimes incorrectly) that these legal experts know how to hold themselves in a social and business environment.  That they can trust them to represent the firm at networking events and to toe the party line.  In fact, when new people join a firm it’s not unusual for them to embark on a round of events akin to The Season, making sure everyone knows who they are, what they do and what they have to say.  What puzzles me is that if firms trust people to do this, why won’t they trust them to do the same online?  After all, social media is really only another way of having a conversation.

The concept of a social media policy is at best forgotten and at worst woefully abused by the majority.  Passing over those that haven’t got one at all (shame on you) this is too often viewed as a way to restrict and police, rather than empower.  But why bother and how?

A well-written social media policy is an opportunity to set out the way your firm communicates with people.  It presents a framework that not only protects your firm’s interests and mitigates risk but also ensures that individuals have a foundation on which to develop skills and best practice.  Getting it right is not about setting out arbitrary rules but identifying the opportunities and guiding people towards them.  It’s about ensuring people know what is and isn’t considered acceptable behaviour, for sure, but importantly, done well, this is an opportunity to demonstrate a focus and commitment to communication, to the outside world.


Golden rule #1:  Collaborate

“In the spring of 2005, IBMers used a wiki to create a set of guidelines for all IBMers who wanted to blog. These guidelines aimed to provide helpful, practical advice to protect both IBM bloggers and IBM.”

Quote from the current IBM Social Computing Guidelines

It’s all too easy to set out rules that stop people from doing things.  But really, we should be encouraging people to get on out there and communicate – engage – sell.  Rather than creating a policy that’s a top-down initiative, why not invite people to contribute their own advice and recommendations?  A collaborative document is likely to result in shared ownership and better end results.


Golden rule #2:  Focus on the end goal

“We engage with our customers and stakeholders beyond the walls of our stores: you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Foursquare. This page will give you a better idea on how to engage with us in social media, what you can expect from us, and where to find more information.”

Quote from Walmart Social Media Guidelines

Walmart is dedicated to using Twitter as an avenue for customer service.  Although, as you read them, you’ll see that their social media guidelines for employees and agents are absolutely watertight, you’ll also see that they’ve leveraged them as a way of explaining their number one goal – to be great at customer service.


Golden rule #3: Be true to yourself 

“Communicating online starts with living our Values. Treat people with respect and avoid speaking negatively about other people, companies or organisations.”

Quote from the Tesco Social Media Guidelines.

The way in which people use social media isn’t just down to “common sense and good judgment” (as Ford states) but should also be guided by organisational values.  It stands to reason that you would want people to communicate in a values-centred way both on and offline.

Golden rule #4: Don’t forget the risky stuff in all the warm fuzzy stuff

“…take a “common sense stance” in regulating conduct and treat ‘electronic behaviour’ as [you] would ‘non-electronic behaviour’.”

Quote from ACAS guidelines on writing a social media policy.

It’s important not to forget that, at the end of the day, this is a legal policy from an employer to employees.  As such it does need to cover off the dos and don’ts in the same way it covers off the hows and whys.  Always seek proper advice to ensure that everyone is protected.


Golden rule #5: Go public

The one thing you’ll notice about all of these examples is that they’re in the public domain.  You see, these guys have cottoned on to the fact that nailing one’s colours to the mast is a great way of demonstrating a commitment to communication and engagement.  To people and relationships.

Importantly, it also gives you an opportunity to set out your position on the things you will and won’t talk about on social media.  There is, for example, a fine line between great social-based customer (or client) care and airing dirty linen in public.  Some firms who have fallen foul of bad publicity on social media (through not responding to negative tweets and comments or doing so in an ill-advised manner) could have avoided the issue by simply publishing a clear set of guidelines as to how they handle negativity.  So, when you’ve done the hard work and followed these golden rules, be proud of it and go public.