TUESDAY 16 JAN 2018 2:59 PM


Forget the hackneyed image of lawyers rushing off to court to issue Stop Writs, or long libel trials. The landscape has changed, and legal support should be considered a key part of any PR and reputation protection strategy.

The key to effective legal support is heading problems off before they arise – done on a pre-publication basis before the presses roll.

It is a team effort with the PR and legal teams agreeing and implementing the best strategy. The PR teams who we work with bring us into cases when they consider it would be helpful to have legal back up. Often this is following a media enquiry, when the sixth sense kicks in, and the PR has a concern that a journalist is on the hunt and a damaging piece is in the offing.

Media laws have evolved to provide us with an extensive tool kit which can be used to prevent the publication of damaging and unlawful claims. Such laws include defamation for false and defamatory claims, breach of confidence, copyright to protect confidential and proprietary information, and privacy laws to prevent speculation about private information concerning individuals. A damaging story can come in many forms, cutting across a plethora of different issues for clients; whether they are supply chain issues, claims made by disgruntled former employees, claims of inappropriate conduct or malicious campaigns instigated by a competitor or activist group.  

Rather than talk in the abstract, this process is best illustrated with a few examples. So, with suitable name changes to protect the innocent, here are a couple of real-life ‘war stories.’

PR Tom gets a call from a TV researcher. Would his client be able to comment about allegations of wrongdoing in his client’s industry, some of which involve his client’s employees? Tom asks for the details to be sent over in writing and, on review, decides to bring in some legal advice. The programme was due to go to air in seven days, and it is clear that the client is not the main target, but has been contacted as a leading player in the sector to add colour to the item.

Fortunately, the client operates a tight ship, the claims of wrongdoing don’t stack up and neither do the examples of alleged wrongdoing which can be refuted. A legal notice is dispatched to the production company and broadcaster, pointing out that the allegations are wrong and that it would be both defamatory and in breach of editorial guidelines to include the client in the broadcast. The client was duly dropped from the item – damaging story, inevitable social media storm and crisis averted.

A similar example involved pointing out to a Sunday newspaper that publishing details about a chief executive’s divorce would be an invasion of privacy, especially given that young children were involved.

Of course, not all matters are so cut and dry, and the strategy needs to be carefully considered from a communications and legal perspective to ensure that the best decision is taken.

Prevention is better than cure. However, legal tools can also be used post publication to have damaging content removed from the internet, corrected or to obtain public vindication through the courts. Invoking a legal claim, can often result in an apology or correction that sets the record straight and undoes the harm caused. In one case, a broadcaster was made to remove an item from its website, publish an apology on the website and read out an on-air apology at 8 pm during a prime time television slot.

Obviously, today’s media crises don’t just come from traditional media and regard has to be given to online news organisations – take BuzzFeed for example – as well as social media.  

Using the law to manage a media issue is a team effort, and in the right cases it is advisable to consider bringing legal and PR strategies together within that team, rather than after the horse has bolted. Often, just a quick call to brainstorm some options can be productive.  

As PR professionals, both you and your team are at the front line of managing issues for your clients, and you can smell a worrisome enquiry  and spot an inflammatory tweet. Trust your gut as to whether a media enquiry is a normal day-to-day one or something that could be more sinister.  

The value of legal involvement is often not about what’s on the front page, but what’s not.

John Kelly is a partner at Harbottle & Lewis, specialising in reputation protection law

For more from Communicate magazine, follow us on Twitter @Communicatemag