Media – Threat or opportunity?

Utilised correctly, social media has the potential to catapult a chambers from a name discussed from time to time in Daly’s to a set recognised outside of Temple as one to engage with. Used incorrectly, a chambers can become a name known by outsiders for all the wrong reasons.

 

As a rule, barristers are not strangers to the media.  Frequently taking up opportunities to provide ‘expert comment’ or offer expertise in the legal sections of the mainstream press, legal journals and even on television, each time with a view to adding a little well-earned gravitas to their professional reputations.

While most are of course great speakers, well able to give colour to even the most technical of matters, a barrister isn’t always at their best in front of a camera or a grim-faced reporter, and suddenly, best intentions notwithstanding, the end result, and the perception of those reading or watching the interview, doesn’t quite match what was hoped for at outset.

On the scales of reputation, a negative comment outweighs a positive one by a somewhat unfair margin and, even when media appearance after media appearance has gone beautifully, a bad slip-up can sometimes send the scales clattering clean over.

As my esteemed colleague was once quoted: “Consider a good reputation as being built out of papier maché, made strong over time with layers of long garnered public favour and hard-won goodwill. All easily destroyed if you try to protect it by swinging a sledgehammer.”

Nonetheless, there are steps you can take to minimise damage, and steps that have the potential to cause yet more harm: consider the London chambers whose barrister was stripped of his QC status, disbarred and disgraced, who had still not taken that barrister off their website some three years later.

No doubt the chambers in question felt some loyalty to the QC in question, but business is business, and personal feelings have no place when it comes to reputation management. As disloyal as they may have felt, a statement distancing themselves from the QC would have allowed them to retain their otherwise exemplary public image and avoided them getting dragged into a damaging scandal.

The growing threat of ‘bad’ coverage on social media

While no stranger to the printed press, or indeed broadcast, the legal industry has been among the last to fully understand the opportunities – and the risks – posed by social media, and among that group, it is fair to say that barristers are bringing up the rear.

Utilised correctly, social media has the potential to catapult a chambers from a name discussed from time to time in Daly’s to a set recognised outside of Temple as one to engage with. Used incorrectly, and a chambers can become a name known by outsiders for all the wrong reasons.

This delicate balancing act is why so few chambers have used social media to its fullest potential – generally using it to post bland statements about the areas they practice in, rather than engaging in a meaningful way with industry peers, the media, and potential clients. Alongside the obvious issues with commenting on live cases, something which colleagues in solicitor’s firms do not have to worry about, social media can often appear to barristers a minefield to be tiptoed across or, as often, not ventured into at all.

The Supreme Court has noted that social media, and more broadly the internet in general, is not controllable, nor is there the precedent or regulation that exists elsewhere and asserts that the courts must adapt their approach in order to deal effectively with it. The internet is a new phenomenon, relatively speaking, and has not had the regulation and governance applied to it that it perhaps will in the future.

The Government recently proposed new measures that would give it more control over the companies that operate social media platforms, provide a framework for regulation and, more specifically, enforce the removal of ‘harmful’ content on pain of large fines and the threat of blocking the service altogether.

The consultation aims to create a legally enforceable ‘duty of care’ towards social media users and is set to run until 1stJuly 2019. What might be included in such a framework is debatable, but it seems unlikely it will do much to protect the professional reputations of all but the tiniest percentage of users.

And so the industry relies largely on self-governance, the effectiveness of which, by its nature, varies significantly from one social media platform to another:  In theory, the terms and conditions of major platforms like Facebook and YouTube already guard, often very effectively, against ‘terrorist propaganda’, ‘revenge pornography’, ‘violent images or content that might incite violence’, but this isn’t the content most likely to harm the professional reputation of your average barrister.

In practice, with each person having an average of seven active social media accounts, it is easy to understand how, in statistical terms, the average user has a carte blanche to post whatever they want. With the sheer volume of content being published, regulation of individual posts that might potentially harm someone’s professional reputation is simply not realistic.

Clearly, what a barrister can and can’t say in public, whether on social media or otherwise, is not dictated only by their discretion.  Nonetheless, as far as reputation is concerned, there is still significant opportunity to say the right thing, and an equally significant opportunity to get it very wrong.

Most commonly, a barrister’s reputational damage isn’t the result of the kind of ‘trolling’ that certain celebrities and public figures are subject to.  More often, we are talking about an errant, misguided tweet, failure to respond to a potentially damaging comment, or responding in a way which itself erodes reputation.

A barrister can rely on the reputation of their chambers, but one’s own reputation must be nurtured, not only in the interests of career longevity, but in the pursuit of excellence, not least because barristers move from chambers and chambers, taking their reputation with them.

So, what can be done about it?

It is an oft-cited truism, that a worthwhile social media account, at least from a reputational perspective, must be posted on frequently and with varied and interesting content.  More than this, even at the most basic of levels, content must not only be interesting, but likely to reach, and preferably stimulate engagement from, those to whom one’s professional reputation and activities is of some consequence.  In the case of barristers, this means appropriate solicitor’s firms or potential direct access clients – and this often means specific individuals.

While in legal terms social media is young, in terms of the knowledge and expertise needed to make it an effective professional tool, it is maturing at high speed.  Posting about one’s successes in a specific case, while worthwhile in part, is no longer sufficient on its own.

The nature of the Bar is that working hours are unpredictable and the work is tough. Whichever area of law a barrister specialises in, it is fair to say that there is rarely a predictable day. While many find this aspect of the job a driver, it also makes media interviews tricky to schedule and consistent, well-timed social media posts nigh on impossible.

Outsourcing your public image to a third party is an option, but is also an exercise in trust, and if you are considering engaging an agency to represent you or your set in the best possible way, it is crucial that you work with one who understands your field, your target market, and the complexities of the sector.

Securing media coverage is not, in theory, difficult for most barristers; fulfilling it effectively, to maximum effect and leveraging that effect across social media is an art few have mastered – nor might they want to: already having precious little free time in their diaries.

As the sector’s uptake of the digital world increases pace, so too will the competition from other barristers and chambers, each vying for the best run twitter account and the most impactful media presence.  In the meantime, though, there is plenty of opportunity to steal a march.

By Sam Rogers , director at specialist PR firm, Uprise Legal

Sam Rogers is a director at specialist PR firm, Uprise Legal (https://uprisepr.com/uprise-legal).

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