Law Firm Public Relations Lessons From 9-11 Ad Controversy

Ad that stirred controversy

There is so much to talk about after the New York Post broke the story about the way Worby Groner Edelman and Napoli Bern Ripka — two New York area law firms — advertised for plaintiffs who were harmed at Ground Zero.

But in the interest of time, here are three quick lessons for all law firms based on PR mistakes made by these two firms and their advertising agency:

Lesson #1 — When it comes to 9-11, it is in extremely poor taste for any organization or person to use misleading statements and false images. Yes, ad agency Barker DZP claims the model, Robert Keiley signed a release and that there was a disclaimer about the identity of the person in the ad. But just because it was legal, doesn’t make it ethical. UPDATE: Barker DZP reportedly apologized late today.

Law firm management would be wise to have an experienced law firm public relations/reputation management professional (separate from an ad agency) to review the ad for content, to validate it’s accuracy, and to alert the partners if the ad might result in the kind of public outrage now being expressed online.

Lesson #2 — When the media calls your law firm about a controversial ad, it’s the law firm(s), that should issue a media statement immediately — instead of referring all calls to the ad agency. Such a statement should have said the current ad was being pulled immediately. The law firms could also apologize to all 9-11 victims and take responsibility for signing off on the ad without carefully analyzing the content. So far, these two law firms have been silent as the negative story grows in the online media and most likely on social media sites. When law firms go silent in the face of controversy, the court of public opinion will always assume guilt. (As of 2:45 p.m. ET today, there has been no press statement on either of the law firm websites.) Most firms can ill-afford that kind of damage to their reputations, particularly when there are a few hundred versions of the same negative news story swirling on Google and on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Lesson #3 — When law firms and their agents make honest mistakes or deliberately mislead in their advertising, it not only hurts the firms involved but harms the reputation of the entire legal profession. The partners at Worby Groner & Napoli Bern have a responsibility to their colleagues –and their bar associations — to acknowledge any mistakes and apologize to those offended (including the firms’ many 9-11 clients).

Finally, this controversy comes at a particularly bad time because lawyers/law firms continue to battle many state bar advertising rules that are over reaching and based on 20th century communications.

I hope that this event does not give more ammunition to state bars and other oversight groups that seek to stifle law firm marketing. If it’s one bad example of lawyer advertising, then the profession should deal with it — but it should not stop the movement for more freedom to advertise (ethically) online and off.

ABA Survey: People Rely On Their Social Networks To Find “Trusted” Lawyers

“People would not use social media avenues to a substantial degree to assist in finding a lawyer for a personal legal matter, but relatively few lawyers market their services through these avenues at this time.” — American Bar Association/Harris Interactive survey

A  recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Bar Association found that 46 percent of respondents who need a lawyer for a personal legal matter would ask a friend, family member or colleague. Now that’s a social network. (Note: It didn’t say HOW they asked so I’m thinking that it’s possible that some are asking their “social network” on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn). Only 34 percent said they would contact a lawyer they knew or had used before, indicating that attorneys may need to try even harder when it comes to client service.

The survey revealed that few people are using social media and Web 2.0  to find a lawyer — but correctly noted that this could be because few lawyers use social media to market their services. That is true but thankfully that is starting to change, albeit slowly. So if  prospects are already asking their “social network” to refer them to a “trusted” lawyer, doesn’t it make sense for more lawyers to use social media? The answer is a resounding yes, particularly since the survey also said that lawyers should seek “a higher public profile” to become a trusted source of referrals.

What do you think of lawyers using social media and the ABA survey?

And for those who want to learn more about social media for lawyers, please see my blog post from December 2010,  “How Law Firms Can Use Social Media in 2011.”

Japan Disaster, Mideast Events=New Crisis Management Mindset for Global Business

The catastrophic earthquake/tsunami in Japan occurred while Libya was exploding into civil war. And that event followed closely the citizen uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia. Now the Saudis have entered Bahrain to protect the Sunni monarchy, adding to an already tense situation in the Middle East.

These somewhat simultaneous world events should remind companies, particularly those with people and offices across continents, to be more prepared than ever to Monitor-Act-Speak (MAS) when multiple humanitarian disasters strike.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the three actions I recommend for organizations that want to fine-tune their approach to crisis management if faced with simultaneous crises:

1) Monitor — Must have intelligence gathering capabilities and the right tools/technology to closely monitor fast-breaking developments in real time.

2) Act – Must have a fluid crisis management plan that can quickly be placed into action. It should identify members of the crisis management team and delineate the responsibilities of each member for a wide variety of crisis scenarios.  Example: Someone will have authority to make all decisions relating to rescue and/or protection of employees and business assets in danger zones.

3) Speak – Using traditional media but especially social media like Twitter, Facebook & YouTube, a company must respond  24/7 to media/blogger inquiries as well as the concerns of a company’s critical audiences (employees/loved ones, customers/clients, government officials, investors, etc.). “Speak” also means “write” — so any backgrounders, fact sheets, press releases and social media posts that can be prepared in advance will make it easier to navigate a serious crisis. Spokespeople previously designated should have access to live video tools like Skype, iChat, Facetime, UStream, Justin.TV and Google Chat.  This will allow critical audiences to actually see and hear from the “face” of the company, which helps an organization to build/rebuild trust much faster. But that’s assuming the written and spoken messages put out by the company are entirely credible. In addition, most of these “apps” are available on a growing list of mobile devices.

For more information about crisis management/crisis communications and social media, please visit:

My colleague, Jonathan Bernstein, also has some great information at

Skippy Recall: Being Reactive Instead of Proactive With Social Media

Skippy recall

Skippy, the peanut butter brand owned by Unilever, is in the middle of an extensive recall of some of its products because of the risk they contain  salmonella. Whether the company’s lawyers are managing the crisis or playing a role in PR decisions or not, Skippy is limiting the use of its Twitter account to answer questions about the recall and referring people only to the official news release on the company website or to their toll free number. That’s a very good start in a crisis — but a company that  limits its online conversations to responding to questions is missing a golden opportunity to communicate effectively in a crisis.

The company announced the recall on Friday, March 4 in a news release posted on its homepage  and on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website. But nothing about the recall was noted on its Twitter account until Sunday, March 6 when the company began responding to recall questions that were posed publicly by Twitter users. However, all these Tweets did was to confirm the recall and then referred people to the news release or phone number.

So much more can, and should be, done to defend the company’s reputation. First, the company could have driven home the message online that the recall decision was made by the company after its own testing of the products — instead of a government agency investigating and mandating a recall. Corporate reputations are improved when companies look out for customer safety before someone is injured but they are harmed when there’s a perception that it is cutting corners and the government has to come in to slap their wrists or take legal action.

Unilever does not seem in sync with its own polices/guidelines regarding communications about its food products. Read this.

Skippy also should have been using Twitter (as well as YouTube, Facebook, etc.) throughout the first few hours/days of the crisis to tell the world what it was doing to resolve the crisis, to remind regularly that no one was reported sick from their products and that the company  is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of its customers. If proactive and corrective measures are already in play, why not tell the world?

YouTube might have been used to show an executive at Skippy talking about his or her concern for consumers and explaining the recall process and its full cooperation with the FDA. A video might also remind customers that the recall is limited to the reduced fat peanut butters. Digital video also allows a company to  (literally) put a human face to the brand and to be more personal with customers. That is exactly what’s called for in a crisis in which trust and credibility might be at risk.

(As the founder of the Crisis Communications Network on, I refer you to a collection of videos there that show leaders facing the media in serious crisis situations.You can also find my earlier post about Skippy and its use of Twitter here.)

Finally, a company that was smart enough to buy the domain  (reportedly in 1998) shows it understood the power of the Internet. However, its “Skippy” Twitter account has less than 300 followers.  So even if  Skippy used Twitter more effectively today, its reach will be limited without multiple retweets and mentions. The lesson here is that companies need to build a strong online following in good times so that in a crisis you reach the masses with your messages, rather than people believing the many rumors and inaccuracies people often find on Google and Bing during a crisis.

What do you think? Is it enough to respond to customers or should Skippy/Unilever be more proactive and take advantage of all social media tools to defend its reputation?

And because I like nostalgia, here’s a classic Skippy commercial from the 1950’s..