You Damage More Than Your Own Personal Brand With Bad Online Behavior

by Nancy Myrland

Damaging Your Personal Brand OnlineFresh off of a webinar I co-hosted for the Legal Marketing Association last week titled “Personal Branding In The Age of Social & Digital Media,” where Clayton Dodds and I scratched the surface of how to define your personal brand, I was disappointed when the story broke about Sullivan & Cromwell’s high-profile partner, Francis “Frank” Aquila, who chose to lash out publicly last week on Twitter at White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

This Isn’t About Politics

Just to be clear, the reason I am writing this blog post has nothing to do with politics, although that is likely the impetus behind Frank’s widely-publicized Tweet.

It has everything to do with Mr. Aquila’s personal brand and how he chose to either reinforce it or damage it in order to prove a point. I don’t know him, so I can’t say which one of those is accurate.

That is my point. I don’t know him and neither do thousands of people who witnessed his outburst on Twitter toward Ms. Sanders, or thousands more who have learned about it since it happened.

In Social Media, Context Is A Luxury

Sullivan & Cromwell Partner Lashes Out At White House Press Secretary Personal Branding on Twitter

In the age of social and digital media, we are not always afforded the gift of context when we post. Observers might see one Tweet, post, update, video, or another short snippet of information that is shocking and at odds with what you have worked so hard to communicate to others as your personal brand. People might not know what came before or after that comment, so context is lost.

As a reminder, your personal brand is the way you do business, the way you act when you come in contact with others, and the behavior that is so consistent there is no question in others’ minds what you will be like when they see you online and offline. It is your brand. Whether you are deliberate about its definition and execution or not, you have one.

“In this case, even if observers had the context of Mr. Aquila’s Tweet, I am not sure that telling someone to ‘Rot in Hell you B!tch’ is ever appropriate.”

If you are going to step out and represent yourself that way online, you have to be pretty certain the rest of your friends, clients, and other followers are okay with that kind of approach and reaction, particularly when you choose to lash out like that in a space as public as Twitter toward a person with a podium as large as Sarah Sanders.

Innovative Use of Social Media?

ABA Journal Sullivan & Cromwell's Frank Aquila's Personal Branding Lesson

In an interesting bit of irony, the ABA Journal tells us that:

“In 2009, the ABA Journal named Aquila one of its Legal Rebels, for his innovative use of social media in his practice. ‘I’m a very social person,’ Aquila told the ABA Journal in 2009. ‘It’s just another extension of my personality.’”

Keyboards As Virtual Armor

Keyboards and screens have come to be digital shields of protection many users need to act out online.

Many of Frank’s friends and supporters may very well have expressed their support of his actions because they, too, might think the statement she made that caused his reaction was off-base and in need of correction.

He might also have built up enough social capital with the people he cares about online that they will support him no matter what, but I doubt that anyone is so popular they can muster that kind of support from everyone.

No More Twitter For Mr. AquilaShould we delete bad Tweets?

We don’t know that part of the story because his Tweet and his Twitter account are now gone, and we are not privy to all of the conversations that took place after this happened. I would imagine he and Sullivan & Cromwell decided the situation was too toxic to keep that content online.

There are no doubt some who took a screen-shot of it before it was taken down, and many others who have quoted him, which you can see in the screenshots throughout this post. It is also archived here.

Never Forget: Our online behavior is not guaranteed to go away when our accounts or Tweets are deleted.

I didn’t have to search too far for any of these articles you see here. The story first appeared in a few newsletters I received from legal trade publications in my inbox. Each article seemed to link to yet another. That is another danger of an online outburst. We can’t control what happens to the evidence because information is easy to find. The snowball effect is often out of our control. 

Grandstanding On Social Media

We live in an age where many like to use social media to grandstand, and to show off their ability to take others down. When I train lawyers, I suggest that if this behavior represents their personal brand, and their online behavior matches their offline behavior, if it is good for business, AND they are comfortable with the after effects on their firm’s brand, then go for it. If they can’t tick off all of those boxes, then they need to step away from the keyboard. 

The Internal Apology

Sullivan & Cromwell Partner Frank Aquila Lashes Out At Sarah SandersWe are told that Mr. Aquila apologized to his firm, as well as mentioned an apology to Ms. Sanders.

The ABA Journal reported that:

“The publication [the New York Law Journal] later obtained an email apology from Aquila to his firm colleagues on Friday. The email read: ‘Last evening, I responded to a tweet from Sarah Sanders in an inappropriate and hurtful manner. Clearly my emotions got the best of me, but equally clearly neither Ms. Sanders nor any woman should be subjected to such animus. I take full responsibility for my ‎actions and I sincerely apologize to Ms. Sanders.’”

I’m not sure his words about not speaking to Ms. Sanders nor any woman in such a manner were expressed directly to her, other than in the copy of the internal email the New York Law Journal obtained.

Had I been counseling him, I would have recommended sending an apology directly to her.

The keyboard isn’t your one-size-fits-all method of communication with other human beings, particularly when you have admitted inappropriate behavior. 

Your Brand Must Be Consistent

From what I can tell of Mr. Aquila’s bio on the firm’s website, he has an amazing career of representing major brands at the highest level, is influential in all the right circles, has been named one of the top 50 lawyers in the world, and is a leader in many ways. It is important that the brand we see in one place be consistent with the brand we see in other places. If not, clients are confused or turned off when observing our actions. Confusion causes people to back away, which I am quite certain was not his intention.

The Potential Damage To Law Firms

The unfortunate consequence of the individual actions of any of the 875 lawyers at Sullivan & Cromwell, or any of the other legal and business professionals at the firm, is that a mishap like this has the potential to damage the entire firm’s reputation.

Just as a strong set of individual lawyer brands can have a positive impact on your firm’s brand and bolster its strength and integrity to those observing, so, too, can words and actions like those in this story damage, and sometimes even take down, the overall brand and integrity of your firm. 

Lawyers And Law Firms Have A Responsibility

If you are going to continue to use the tools and platforms you have at your disposal to communicate, you also have to continue to train those who are using them under the umbrella of your firm, not just once a year or every other year when you can squeeze enough time and money out of the budget to do so, but on a regular basis.

  • You need to let people of all ages, positions, and levels know your expectations.
  • You need to define your firm’s brand, then communicate it over and over to everyone on a regular basis.
  • You need to help them define their personal brands.
  • You need to help legal and business professionals feel comfortable using the tools they have in front of them.
  • You need to understand that being a digital native or a digital adopter doesn’t mean there is a built-in understanding, or lack thereof, regarding how to use social media intelligently. Age is not a factor in determining online intelligence.
  • You need to address the fine line that exists between personal and professional use of social and digital media. That line is fading.
  • You need to be aware and focused on all of this because damage to individual or firm brands is not worth the lack of your attention to these details.

Don’t Be The Next Case Study

I understand everyone isn’t perfect, or that errors will sometimes occur online. I also understand you have a great deal of input in your firm in minimizing this kind of behavior on social media by following the bullet point above. If you don’t have that input, show this to someone who does.

As you can see from all of the screenshots I have posted, Mr. Aquila’s and Sullivan & Cromwell’s name were mentioned in each article I reviewed. His actions were attached to the firm’s name and brand. His actions had the potential to damage the firm’s brand name as well as his own. As much as we would like to think we can lead separate personal and professional digital lives, that is not reality.

Please take the time to make sure everyone in your firm plays his/her part in building a strong, positive firm brand and that the potential to tear down your firm’s good name is minimized. 


Written by:

Nancy Myrland

Myrland Marketing & Social Media on:

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