Twitter ‘scandals’ are all the rage in the media (‘rage’ being the operative word), as Milton Keynes law firm Baker Small is finding out to its cost.
The story of a series of tweets it sent out on Saturday, seen as gloating about its success in defeating claims made by parents whose children have special educational needs (SEN), moved rapidly from blogs by outraged parents to stories in the legal press to stories in local and educational press and finally, inevitably, to the nationals and broadcasters.
The firm took to Twitter to apologise as profusely as it could. This did not work as the media coverage spread. Then the managing director issued a second statement today to try and explain his actions (for he was the one who sent the offending tweets) and suggest that it showed how a debate over the SEN system was needed.
Rather than help, it just poured fuel on the fire, aided by one of Baker Small’s local authority clients coming out publicly to say that it was no longer going to instruct the firm. As I write, Twitter users are calling on others to follow suit.
There are two issues here – what you do in a crisis of this nature, and what it means for law firms using social media.
Making a second statement today was a mistake. It gave the story fresh legs and didn’t help the firm at all. Painful though it may be to sit tight and take the abuse, the best action in a situation like this – once the apology has been made – is inaction. With no new information to feed on, interest would move elsewhere.
The arguments made by Mark Small in his second message were valid and worthy of debate; it was just that this was not the time to make them. They were always going to shrivel up in the heat generated by the outrage.
Maybe a few months down the line, the firm could have come out, striking a humble tone as it talked about the lessons it learned and how the SEN system can be made less adversarial.
What has happened to Baker Small is, of course, the nightmare scenario for law firms up and down the land thinking about using social media – not only to make a gaffe but also to see it directly damage their business (which, in reality, does not usually happen). If the head of a firm can’t use it responsibly, then who can be trusted to?
It is hard to legislate for this kind of misjudgement by the man in charge, but it risks making the large majority of law firms that are social media averse even less keen to dip their toes into the water. It shouldn't.
You can, to some extent, plan out, approve and then schedule messages, but social media thrives on more spontaneous interaction, and so firms need to lay down clear guidelines for anyone who uses it, supported by training. Users should be encouraged to check with a colleague if they are unsure about a particular message. Stay professional is one, rather clear, message from Baker Small's tale of woe.
Don’t be put off. Social media can be an effective way to spread the word and interact with potential clients – indeed, the world of special needs is an excellent example of a strong, supportive online community where useful information, such as the names of good lawyers, is spread far and wide.
A law firm has been forced to apologise after the managing director posted a number of gloating tweets about winning a tribunal against the parents of a child with special educational needs. Solicitor Mark Small, 36, of the Baker Small firm based in Milton Keynes, sparked an internet row after posting a series of tweets over the weekend which shocked and offended the parents of disabled children.