Should lawyers stop using Twitter?

“This just shows how mad it is for any firm of Solicitors to use Twitter.”

The above is a comment posted after the Law Society Gazette’s online report about a firm of solicitors that recently found itself in hot water as a result of a series of tweets appearing to celebrate a ‘win’ over a family seeking educational support for their child.

The firm – Baker Small – posted tweets such as “Crikey, had a great ‘win’ last week which sent some parents into a storm!” and “Great ABA Trib [tribunal] win this week … interesting to see how parents continue to persist with it. Funny thing is parents think they won ;)”

The latter tweet related to an attempt by parents to access funding for Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA)– ABA is regarded as an intervention that can help autistic children to learn. There are debates around the effectiveness of ABA, but that’s not my area. I am cringing as you read these – aren’t you?

The tweeter didn’t seem to have walked a mile in the shoes of parents with a kid who needs extraordinary levels of support from them and their local authority.

Unfortunately for the firm, though, events didn’t stop here.

The MD of Baker Small – Mark Small – then carried on posting tweets (he has at least implied it was him in subsequent apologies and statements), such as a picture of a kitten laughing with the wording: “Some great tweets received today from people who just see a one-sided argument … just shared them with my cat …”

The firm has now deleted the offending tweets, made a public apology and also donated some cash to charity.

However, the damage done by these tweets is far more significant than being on the receiving end of some angry messages from parents. In a clear example of just how much online reputation can affect the bottom line, at least eight local authorities cancelled or promised to review contracts they had in place with Baker Small.

One – Norfolk County Council – had contracts of £600,000 with the firm. Its spokesperson stated: “While we have noted Baker Small’s apology on this matter, our view is that tweets posted over the weekend were wholly inappropriate and do not in any way reflect how this council wishes to work with families.”

It’s those words from Norfolk County Council that contain the nub of the issue here.

While the work that Baker Small did may have resulted in councils winning cases, the point is that Mark Small chose to gloat about it in public and then argue with those who disagreed – and that’s not how any public authority wants to define its relationship with families.

So, was the Law Gazette commenter correct that it’s ‘mad’ for a firm of solicitors to use Twitter?

No, I don’t believe so. We see plenty of examples of law firms using social media to spread positive messages and to enhance their reputations, both offline and online.

Most obviously, what we have here is a clear case of a misuse of Twitter creating catastrophic damage to reputation. What lay behind what he has called a temporary bit of “red mist”?

We’ll never know but, either way, he broke the cardinal rule of investing in business social media: never make it personal.

By gloating, making, well, more than one kind of ‘catty’ remark and getting involved in arguments, Baker Small lost its professional façade – and, as the ongoing attention the comments have received demonstrates – that’s not easy to come back from.

But let’s not forget the wider context here either – two points here.

First up, and from a comms perspective, in the pre-Twitter past, firms would have been well advised to behave around the press with caution, respect, politeness and intelligence – as if anything they said or did would end up in the public domain, where they could be judged.

In this regard, social media is not something new – it’s just that anyone, including the blog ‘Special Needs Jungle’ which republished the offending tweets, can now be a publisher. This means respect, politeness and intelligence should be the order of the day all the time.

Doesn’t sound so bad, does it, as a brave new world, providing you can manage ‘nice’ and generally hold together the decency bit of this.

Which most people can, to be honest.

The next reputational challenge is for the councils. If they are properly shocked, nothing they do now can be allowed to echo what made those texts so bad. And I don’t just mean on Twitter.

Put starkly, can they behave towards parents with respect, politeness and intelligence? After all, they instructed Baker Small – ‘the client is king’ these days, and as the kitten in that ill-advised twitter post grows into a boring old mog, attention will turn back to the general behaviour of these councils.

I’m not sure parent-publishers are going to stop with one scalp if nothing changes.

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