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Most firms report that one of the most compelling reasons why they avoid using social media is the dreaded "negative feedback." But any business with social media traction has faced some form of public negative feedback, and the smart ones have handled it successfully. Your firm can, too.

Today’s focus on interpersonal interaction between businesses and their clientele means that anyone on your Facebook wall can say (almost) anything they like. That all-access pass may get you some glowing accolades from happy clients, which you definitely want -- when someone posts a positive comment to your wall, everyone who has that person in their news feed can see what they've written. You now have viral marketing in your pocket.

But that also means that disgruntled types can post their complaints about you for everyone to see. And if your firm has been in business for any length of time, you inevitably have clients who have not been entirely happy with your services you provided. That's the nature of a business which so often must engage in black-and-white decision making.

The first thing you need to do, before you respond to a complaint, is to look as dispassionately as possible at the feedback. Study it from all angles. Is the client completely misrepresenting the situation, and if so, why? If not, what could you have done differently? All of your analysis of the feedback needs to happen before you even touch your keyboard.

I am ready to post a response. Can I post it?
Wait. Look over what you have drafted, then take a walk around the block and look it over again. Are you responding to an accusation or debating the facts? And while you may feel you know the difference, will that client? Your response may well simply inspire them to respond again with more vitriol, and then what will you do? Facebook walls and Twitter feeds have an almost limitless capacity for back-and-forth quips. All you might be doing is feeding a disgruntled client's need to tell everyone with whom you have contact what an idiot they think you are, repeatedly. Don’t give them the marquee space to do so.

Right. I've taken a walk, cooled off, and thought about how I am not opening up a debate session. Now can I post it?
Not yet. Look over your response again. Does it say anything which crosses confidentiality lines? If there is no judgment entered in court, your confidentiality agreement is likely still in place in some form. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot to make a point.

Fine. The response does not mention anything which could cross confidentiality lines. Now I can post, right?
Nope. Not yet. Are you saying anything which will cause your former client harm? Every state except for California has adopted the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct. You must not perform an action which causes harm or injury to your former client. And even California has its own version of the ethics rule. So, pull back on anything that could be construed as mud-slinging, no matter how tempted you are.

That said, you are able to reveal that confidential client information to an extent, if it protects you against a claim of malpractice or as defense against some other claims. But whether that extends to the public forum of a social media account is murky. The best advice is to proceed with extreme caution.

Okay, what are my options?
While your first instinct may be to delete the negative feedback and pretend it never occurred, that approach may well backfire on you, no matter how unfair you believe that review to be. Open, honest responses are generally more effective. Of course, if the client has posted comments that are lewd or inflammatory on your own page, just delete them. If the comments about you on someone else’s Facebook wall can be considered lewd or inflammatory, you may flag them and request that they be removed.

For all other comments, a professional, dispassionate response along the lines of, "While we cannot publically discuss the facts of the case, we would be happy to speak with you privately about your concerns" may be enough. Your goals are to not engage in a public debate, not give the negative feedback fuel to grow, and to disarm the PR punch that it can carry. If done well, you may even get to some grudging meeting-of-the-minds between you and that client.

The net value of social media interaction is positive enough that your firm needs to get social and stay social. Be prepared for negative feedback, hope it is both sparse and infrequent, and focus on how to minimize the impact while repairing any bridges.

About Author

Barbara Atkinson is a former Bigger Law Magazine staff contributor and editorial board member.

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