Marketing Tip:
Ethical Hurdles to Marketing Your Mediation Practice Digitally     

The Internet has been a wonderful invention for sharing information, and it has made it easier for people – including ADR professionals – to find the resources they need to succeed.  However, as more opportunities have arisen on the Internet, we've also seen people misuse digital resources for marketing in ways that could be construed as unethical.

Online Reviews           
Regardless of what you try to purchase today, you're sure to find an online review site that will rate the purveyors, and that's also true for professional services.  Whether it is Yelp, Kudzu, or Angie's List, there's always an opportunity for clients to express their opinions on the services they were provided.  In ADR this is typically an issue for providers who handle domestic issues, small claims and other similar matters, but the Internet does offer an opportunity for everyone to voice their opinions.         

There are two basic ethical issues that arise with online reviews.  First of all, if your practice is listed on any of these sites (if it's on Angie's List, you'll only know this if you are a paid member), it is unethical to solicit or compensate people to post a good review for you.  Similarly it's unethical for you to be involved in any way in posting negative reviews for your competition.  In fact, in reading the terms of service for most of these sites, you'll find both of these actions are expressly prohibited and, if discovered, will result in your business being banned. 

The second ethical issue that arises with regard to these sites is how, or in fact if, you respond to the comments that are posted.  Clearly a blistering reply that impugns the intelligence, veracity, or heritage of the poster is unethical.  However, not only is it unethical, it might also have the exact opposite effect you had desired.  Remember, what happens in mediation is confidential, and anything you say online about a mediation is subject to that restriction.  The best suggestion is to post a reply that indicates to the poster that you will be happy to discuss their issues offline and that you'd be happy to bring in a third party to facilitate the negotiation.  (For a more detailed discussion of mediation confidentiality, please see Advisory Opinion 8 on the GODR website.)

Social Media Comments         
Although social media are not review sites, the reality is that any open forum for comment is going to pull in verbiage similar to that on review sites.  Thus the same ethical constraints exist.  You can reply with a request to take the discussion offline, but you cannot disclose or admit by virtue of engaging in a discussion online what has happened within an ADR proceeding.

Many ADR professionals are active in online professional discussion groups on LinkedIn and find it a good way to increase market awareness of their practice.  Again it is important to note that no information from within a mediation can be discussed here without violating your ethical obligations.

About 18 months ago, LinkedIn started offering a service they call endorsements.  To ensure that people would use it they made it simple to endorse someone, probably too simple.  Now when you log into LinkedIn you'll get a box that lists four of your connections and ask if you endorse them for "XYZ."  If you click the button, you've endorsed them.

Consider for a moment your own endorsements on your LinkedIn account.  Do the people who endorsed you for litigation, mediation, facilitation or any other service really know how you handle any of those functions?  In most cases they've never even been at your table.  They connected with you on the LinkedIn platform because they knew you socially or recognized your name.  Thus when you tout your LinkedIn endorsements, you're using uninformed knowledge to reinforce public perception of your skill set.  To most people this behavior is considered unethical, and you should really consider carefully how you use this information.

If you're lucky, at the end of an engagement you may receive a thank you note that includes wonderful flowery statements about your skill set.  There's normally other information in the note that if disclosed would violate the confidentiality of the mediation.  However, you'd really like prospective clients to hear the sender’s compliments.  Many of you would immediately take a snippet or two out of this letter and send it to your marketing team for inclusion in your printed collateral and on your website.  Did you get the writer’s permission to use his or her words?  Are you going to attribute the quote to the sender?  Before you start taking their words out of context and publicizing them, either with or without attribution, you need to get the writer’s permission.  To do anything else would be unethical.  Posting general testimonials is acceptable, but testimonials that would identify a specific mediation are unethical.

Connections ... Disclose or Not?         
Consider for a moment that you're booking a mediation, and you realize (if you're lucky) that you are connected to opposing counsel or one of the parties on LinkedIn or perhaps they have "liked" your Facebook business page.  Do you have to disclose that "relationship?"  What constitutes a "relationship" in our digital world?    As a general rule, we advise our clients to include a statement in their letters of engagement and agreements to mediate that refers to the fact that they are generally connected to many people on the Internet, but that these connections are as a result of sharing general information and that you have not engaged in extended discussions (either online or in person) with any of the parties to this mediation that could reasonably be construed as a "relationship.”  Of course, if you've had extended online discussions, you need to disclose them, but as a general rule, if you wouldn't recognize individuals or their names if you met, them then you aren't being unethical by not disclosing a relationship, because a relationship doesn't exist.

Sharing Content          
You see a great article in the media and share it by posting a link to it and maybe a comment about it in your e-newsletter or on your website or a social media site.  Are you being unethical given that it isn't your own copyrighted material?  First of all, the key here is that you're sharing it, not claiming it as your own work product.  Second, you're linking to it on the original author’s or publisher's website rather than copying the entire piece and posting it on your own site.         

If you know the original authors, it is considered good form to send them a quick note and ask if they mind your publishing a link to their content.  The chances are that they will be thrilled to get the additional exposure; I've only been turned down once in all the years we've been doing this.  There is one caveat: if you are publishing for consumption in Canada (even if only a few of your readers are in Canada), it is critical to get permission from the copyright holders to share their work product as this issue is currently being litigated there.

As the Internet evolves in coming years, the ethical challenges that we all face as we market our practices online will only grow.  When considering whether what you are doing is ethical or not, you should look first to the guidelines that govern your neutral registration.  Clearly you cannot do anything that would violate those.  After that, consider reversing the situation; would you feel violated if another mediator had done this to you?  This holds true for sharing work product, touting endorsement or sharing glowing comments.  When in doubt, take the safe route and find an alternative article or endorsement to use to market your practice.


Michele Gibson is a Georgia-registered neutral and a certified emerging media consultant.  She is the president of Digital Smart Tool, LLC – an e-marketing firm offering website design, SEO, electronic newsletters, social media coaching, and marketing training seminars.

Phone: 404-592-3367  E-mail:


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