Baker Small: a cautionary tale of Twitter

29/06/2016 11:37:39
It’s filled columns in the papers, fuelled rants on parenting and education sites, and caused great embarrassment for a number of local councils. Here’s why even swift crisis action couldn’t save the Baker Small legal team from the public relations nightmare they created for themselves.
By now, you’re probably familiar with the recent events on social media which led law firm Baker Small to shoot itself firmly in the foot. The firm, which acts on behalf of a number of local authorities to contest claims for children with special educational needs, recently caused a storm of disapproval when it published a series of tweets which appeared to gloat openly about its case wins and disparage the families whose funding it contested.

Baker Small swiftly went into ‘crisis mode’, apologising for the tweets and making a donation to a related charity, but the firm’s reputation has taken a nosedive. Here’s why even swift crisis action couldn’t save the Baker Small legal team from the public relations nightmare they created for themselves.

Keeping it 'professional'

Because of the number of conflicting interests at stake, reputation management in the legal sector can be complicated at the best of times. Discretion, impartiality and a professional tone are high priorities in social media management for law firms – and in fields where strong feelings can prevail, such as immigration or disability law, it’s even more important for lawyers to keep a guarded and professional front on social channels.

Which is perhaps why the internet reacted so strongly to the rather adversarial tone of Baker Small’s tweets. Whatever the intention behind the posts, tweeting about the firm’s ‘great win’ against the parents of children with special educational needs conveyed neither impartiality, professionalism or discretion.

Instead of recognising that their social posts had landed badly, Baker Small then went on to tweet: “Whenever someone thinks they have won and they have conceded 90% of their case, it does make me smile” – while highlighting the human side of a brand can often be an effective marketing tactic, it rapidly becomes less successful when the people behind the brand elect to channel contentious personal views through it.

Answering back

It’s the number one cardinal rule of social media: think before you post, and if you aren’t sure, then don’t send. You may remember the Amy’s Baking Company Facebook incident from a few years ago, when a difference of opinions on a restaurant’s social media page quickly turned into a heated exchange, culminating in a slanging match which ultimately led to the closure of the business. The owners responded quickly and aggressively to every message posted on their profile, leading Forbes to feature the business as a case study of bad social media management.

While Baker Small didn’t have quite such a spectacular social media meltdown, they also opted for a defensive response, ignoring several suggestions from Twitter users that their posts were raising eyebrows and making light of the criticism instead.

“A little more gravitas might be in order, you are dealing with vulnerable children’s lives,” tweeted a reader. The response from Baker Small was a picture of a kitten laughing, beneath the words: “Some great tweets received today from people who just see a one-sided argument … just shared them with my cat…”

The fallout from Baker Small’s ill-advised tweets stemmed from the same mistake that Amy’s Baking Company made: not heeding the signs that their posts were ill-judged, and continuing to defend them even after the audience backlash began. By the time the debacle made the national news, Baker Small had cemented their reputation as callous and adversarial in the minds of the nation.

An apology - too little, too late

On Baker Small’s part, this was probably the best-handled element of the incident. Managing director Mark Small published a lengthy apology to the company’s social media profiles, expressing regret for his actions.

"We unreservedly apologise for the offence caused and the nature of the tweets, which were removed. Full and appropriate action will be taken to address the matter,” the letter said.

"It is with regret that yesterday, tweets were sent from us which were not acceptable regardless of the context.

"We do not wish, on any level, to cause distress and upset to parents and carers and it is with sincere regret that we have let ourselves down by publishing tweets which are not representative of the work or approach we adopt," he added.

The firm also stated that it would be making a donation to the Children's Hospice of the South West appeal.

While this statement struck the right tone and formed a great example of crisis communications best practice, the damage was already done: critics dismissed Small’s apology as disingenuous, and several local authorities ended their relationships with the firm shortly after.
This just goes to show that, vital as effective crisis management is, it can be the equivalent of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted: Baker Small had several opportunities to avoid a PR fiasco but ignored them all, and the firm was left to pick up the pieces of its damaged reputation. Sometimes a crisis strategy just isn’t enough to rescue a social media disaster – always think twice before you post.

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