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.

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