What you say

Jim Martinez, a former reporter and editor, has spent years working at some of the world’s largest public relations firms atoning for the crises he caused.  He can be reached at jim@rightstorygroup.com.

Every time attorneys talk to reporters, post a blog or tweet, they face the risk of unintended consequences that can threaten their careers or cases.

In October, Jill Filipovic, a litigation associate with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel in New York, became the subject of national media coverage because she posted a photo on Twitter that displayed a Transportation Security Administration notice stating her bag had been searched.  On it was scrawled a message: “Get your freak on girl.”

Filipovic tweeted: “Just unpacked my suitcase and found this note from TSA. Guess they discovered a ‘personal item’ in my bag. Wow.”

The “personal item,” as it turns out, was a vibrator.  Filipovic had intended her tweet to be a funny commentary on a serious privacy issue.  The unintended consequences were that she became a media starlet whose name appeared around the world and whose story cost someone their job. Reporters covered the story, which in turn led to a federal investigation, the issuance of a formal apology and the suspension and ultimate dismissal of the employee who left the note.

This example of how a casual tweet can result in cascading consequences demonstrates the power and reach of social media.  It also suggests that law schools may not be fully preparing attorneys for all the challenges they can face after they get their JDs.

There’s been some discussion in the profession about whether attorneys should use social media. That’s beside the point.  Social media is a fact of life.  Plenty of attorneys use it.  The real issue is whether attorneys are ready to handle the fallout of a social media post or a passing comment to reporters.

Random comments to reporters can easily find their way into stories.  Stray blog posts or tweets can do the same.  I don’t want to suggest that attorneys set aside their rights, lead monastic lives or refrain from using social media. However, attorneys must carefully and strategically weigh what they say and how they say it because these comments can affect their ability to represent clients or progress professionally.

A spokesperson for Filipovic’s lawfirm said the associate did not appear to violate the firm’s social media policies.  What will only become clear with time is whether Filipovic’s comments will affect her professional advancement.  Will clients want to be represented by the “blogger attorney?” Will the firm want a partner whose personal communications led to a discussion on “The View” and were mentioned in media outlets around the world – in several different languages?

What is immediately clear is that the attorney in this case was wholly unprepared for the unintended consequences of her post.  After the wave of publicity, Filipovic wrote: “I think it sounds incredibly naive to suggest that every single time a person puts something on Twitter, they are looking for national attention and to be widely known for that one tweet.” What’s naïve is assuming your tweet won’t be noticed.

Lawyers need to get savvier about traditional and social media.  They must learn the new rules of communication.  And they need to anticipate the unintended consequences.

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