A rogue and disgruntled associate in a large Canadian law firm had a bone to pick with a few of its partners. Rather than pull in one of those discrete committees that operates just under the surface of every large firm and deals with sensitive internal matters, this associate opted for an office-wide diatribe sent via e-mail from his home.
The scandalous statements created shockwaves and went through the local legal community like a missile. Inside 24 hours the first media outlet called the firm and the associate for interviews, with many more to follow, including national print media. Then, it went global.
Blogs were hyperventilating over the news, restaurant lunch tables were a-buzz and the media hounded the law firm for a response – in some instances, relentlessly. That was way back in 2002 when references to blogs were always followed with a definition and were largely published by students and early adopters.
Today, public relations is no longer contained by spokespersons or campaigns guided by professionals. Now, many people get their daily dose of news with a quick scan on twitter or news feeds. As evidence, take the growth of twitter in less than two years and the intense rate of change in which it delivers news (with a nod to Vancouver’s Matt Wilcox for these stats):
- 20 tweets per hour on Maple Leaf’s Listeria-related recall, August 2008
- 250 tweets per hour on US Airways Hudson River crash, January 2009
- 10,000 tweets per hour on H1N1 discovery, April 2009
- 50,000 tweets per hour on the Tiger Woods scandal, January 2010
- 180,000 tweets per hour on iPad launch, March 2010
Just a few years ago PR professionals told our own story at our own pace and with a degree of control. We did so for years and without the help of citizen journalists who now regularly break or hijack stories. Your firm’s reputation and story-telling is subject to anyone with access to a keyboard. The playing field is officially levelled.
Online news is now delivered and received at the speed of sound, anytime and practically anywhere. Now that PDAs are relatively inexpensive and mobile, it guarantees its continued growth. Witness something suspicious, record and YouTube it. See a news-worthy event on the street, it gets a tweet. Get bad service, a blog lambasts the company and names the employee.
More than ever, major brands and reputations are at risk if they haven’t devised a media plan that monitors, responds to and measures “brand mentions”, whether they are favourable or unfavourable.
Major Canadian law firms are predictably slow on the uptake to monitor or participate in reputation management. And that same rogue associate today would likely ignite a significant and damaging story within an hour, not 24 hours. The firm would be called upon to respond to media enquiries before management even saw the story – they wouldn’t know what hit them.
Traditional media and methods of public relations, for that matter, are long gone. We turned that corner a while ago. Law firms now need to prepare to protect and advance their firm’s reputation, brand and profitability. Anything short, for a large firm in particular, is risky.
On the flip side, use online PR to your advantage by responding to comments or questions about your firm or area of law. Position yourself or your firm as the expert and encourage interactivity with your clients and prospects. After all, I think we can now, finally, all agree that professional service firms are built on existing relationships.
Don’t leave your most valuable corporate assets—your brand and your reputation—in the hands of anyone with a strong opinion and a keyboard.