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Practice Innovations - Managing in a changing legal environment
Gray Rule
October 2014 | VOLUME 15, NUMBER 4
Gray Rule
You Know What They Say ...
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You Know What They Say ...Lynn R. Watson, Director of Information Resource Technologies, Hogan Lovells US LLP, Washington, DC
There's a conversation occurring that you need to pay attention to. Social media is an outlet for customers and competitors to express their opinions and ideas. Some of it is good and some of it is bad, but it's a conversation that you don't want to miss.

Communication comes from the Latin word commūnicāre meaning "to share." In modern terms, communication is about the sharing of information; it's the act of conveying a message from a sender to a receiver through a medium such as speech, gestures, writing, etc.1 The first mental image conjured up when one hears the term communication tends to be of people speaking: a conversation, an orator, or a presentation. However, the most crucial element is actually the other half of the equation: the listener. Listening is often undervalued, because on the surface it seems to be a rather passive form of participation. While we've all been the listless, restless "listener," in fairness, to really listen is to be actively engaged and thoughtful of the message being conveyed.

The Internet and social media have cultivated entirely new forums for communication. The barriers of time and distance have been eradicated and a world forum has arisen where anyone with an Internet connection is able to "see and be seen." Anyone can pontificate on the most arcane of topics. They can review services and products, they can share videos and images, and they can opine on the most random of topics. The most powerful part of this equation is that they have an immediate audience. There are the people who stumble upon opinions and diatribes through random searching and then there are the people who are targeted based on similar interests, common relationships, etc. Regardless of how they connect, when they do, they are bound by some commonality, uniting to share ideas and to listen.

So what does this mean for you? As an individual, you're more than likely already actively participating. Using services like Rotten Tomatoes and Yelp, you may be sharing your recent experiences with local businesses. You may have written a review or rated the new book you bought on Amazon, you may have written a blog entry endorsing your local school board candidate, or you may have simply "liked" a store or brand on Facebook. On the flip side, you're listening to what people are saying. You may have perused the restaurant ratings on OpenTable before making dinner plans, tweeted a product endorsement, or on a larger scale, researched and read reviews of new 2015 autos before making a purchasing decision.

You're not alone. Statistics show that over 70 percent of people do online research and consult online reviews before making purchasing decisions. As a matter of fact, ratings and reviews are second only to search when ranking the importance of a website's features.2 With metrics like these, it's not surprising that companies and organizations are also paying close attention to the conversations occurring online.

Listening to the Good and the Bad

In an era where interactions and relationships have been virtualized, social listening provides valuable insight into what customers are thinking about and how they are reacting to businesses and their products and services.3 If you're listening on behalf of your business, you'll hear that they have a lot to say. Of course, it's easy to bask in praise and positive sentiments, but what about those negative commentaries? In the age of social media, negative opinions can go viral and prove to be detrimental to your brand. Business proprietors have an obligation to know what people are saying to protect the bottom line.4 Even though there are estimates that up to 15 percent of reviews on social media are falsified, your customers put a lot of trust in the reviews that they read and the viewpoints that they see. As a matter of fact, consumers, on average, only bother to look at four to seven reviews before making a decision, and that means negative sentiments can quickly gain traction and have an adverse effect on your business.5 Protect your brand and reputation. The conversation will continue with or without you, so now is not the time to put your fingers in your ears and pretend you can't hear what's being said. Instead, engage your customers: the happy ones and, more importantly, the disgruntled ones. Listen to what they're saying and use it as an opportunity to showcase your customer service skills.6 Of course, there is also strategic value in social listening; it doesn't need to be focused entirely on reacting to what you hear. You can proactively gather intelligence about your competitors' perceived weaknesses or initiatives. You can identify industry trends and customer wants. You can use the information to improve your own self-awareness.7

Where Did You Hear That?

The noise circulating on the Internet can be deafening, and it's hard to know where to start. Most organizations, and tools alike, start in the most obvious places: Facebook, twitter and other social media outlets. Other common areas for social listening are the review and comments sections of corporate or product pages, industry specific sites and/or blogs, and keyword searches for your company's name, competitors' names, or key personnel. But these targets are representative of only a sampling of the conversation hubs out there, and you could easily overwhelm yourself trying to "hear" it all.

As a result, the art of Social Listening, or Social Monitoring, is developing into an industry in its own right. Software companies such as HootSuite have created specialized tools to automate the monitoring process and help businesses manage their social presence.8 New consulting companies and services have launched with the sole charter of listening to the Internet for mentions of brands, products, CEOs, etc., and managing responses on behalf of their clients. A major limitation of each of these solutions is that they are only privy to what is made public; they are not able to penetrate private conversations or closed groups.9

But What About the Ugly ...

Like other businesses, law firms want to follow conversations about their clients and the industries in which they operate. For law firms, however, monitoring can be more complex, as there are additional factors that need to be taken into account. Not only is there an interest in listening to what's being said about the firm, but there's also an interest in the conversations taking place about individual lawyers. Not only is there an interest in what's being said in the legal industry generally, but there's also an interest in what's being said about the firm in every industry in which it practices. Law firms also need to know what's being said about the different cases they're taking on and the ones they've already undertaken.10 Although we'd like to think that people operate with the best of intentions, we know this isn't always the case. Regardless of whether it's positive or negative, feedback is valuable when it's constructive; however, in some instances information or reviews posted on the Internet are little more than "e-gossip" with little truth or founding behind what is being said. This problem is compounded by the anonymity, lack of accountability, and the viral capabilities afforded by the Internet.

Stemming from these social media risks is a growing body of case law, including claims of defamation and copyright infringement, discrimination, breach of non-compete agreements, and employee misrepresentation on social media sites.11 The impact of malicious commentary on social media reaches far and wide; it reaches from the personal to the corporate boardroom and to federal agencies. Social media is cited as a contributing factor to divorce in 80 percent of divorce cases and people are going so far as to create "social media prenups" which outline acceptable social media behavior.12 At the other end of the spectrum are cases arguing for and against the continued anonymity of negative reviewers and whether or not those individuals should be protected by the First Amendment. And what about former employees who write negative commentary? Are they covered by the federal whistle-blower statutes?13

If You Can't Say Anything Nice ...

You can't please everyone—we all know that—and people have a legitimate right to express their opinions, whether they are complaints or praise. But when an opinion is expressed publicly, on a blog, in a review, or through social media, the targeted party may take an interest in it; businesses certainly should. An organization not only has the right, but also an obligation—to its brand, its stakeholders, and its other customers—to know what's being said. If there are negative sentiments circulating, it has a responsibility to try to rectify the situation before the company or its brand is tarnished. Most importantly, however, a company needs to be accountable to its customers. If you aren't "social" listening to yours, you're missing the opportunity to be part of their conversation.14


  1. "Communication." Wikipedia, n.d. Retrieved 14 Aug. 2014.
  2. "Infographic of Industry Facts Shows Why Online Reviews Are a Big Deal." Review Trackers, 26 March 2013. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  3. Davidson, S. J. "Why Social Media Listening is Important for Businesses.", 8 July 2014. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Supra, note 2.
  6. Supra, note 3.
  7. Fruz, A. "Peeping the Social media –p InfoSec Institute." InfoSec Institute, 17 Sept. 2013. Retrieved 28 July 2014.
  8. Allton, M. "How to Use HootSuite for Social Listening." Hootsuite Social Media Management, 21 Nov. 2013. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  9. Supra, note 7.
  10. O'Keefe, K. "Social Media Monitoring Services-Law Firms Using Correctly?" Real Lawyers Have Blogs, 7 July 2013. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  11. Rhulen, S. & Masullo, K. "Social Media Risk Monitoring: Has Your Organization Been Gazopted*?" Law Practice Today, June 2012. Retrieved 21 Aug. 2014.
  12. Effron, L. "I Love You, You're Perfect, but Watch What You Facebook: Social Media Prenups." ABC News, (7 June 2014. Retrieved 22 June 2014.
  13. Supra, note 11.
  14. Moore, P. "Social Media Listening: Can You Afford to Ignore the Conversation Any Longer?" Marketing Nutz, 23 May 2011. Retrieved 14 July 2014.

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