PR at a crossroads

On Wednesday night I attended a lecture by Head of Legal at Boohoo.com, Steve Kuncewicz. The lecture was titled ‘PR at a crossroads’ and focused on how the PR industry should consider legal issues in their work, an area which I hadn’t before considered would have such an impact on our role – so this lecture was an eye opener to say the least!

He began by talking about the Leveson inquiry, the crux of the topic. When he asked the room about its opinion on Levesons impact on the PR industry, most agreed that in fact they were not too worried about its effect on PR. However, the inquiry itself has thrown legal issues within the media into the spotlight and will inevitably see increased regulation throughout the industry as whole – beginning of course with the development of a replacement of the Press Complaints Commission, as ordered by the inquiry.

Another huge impact of course is the digital evolution. Due to the growth of online and digital, new skills are needed, and needless to say the use of Twitter is now much more regulated. We have already witnessed the crackdown on regulation on social media through cases such as the following:

Tom Daley was recently victim to Twitter trolls when he received tweets claiming his father would be ashamed of him after he failed to win Gold at the Olympics 2012.

Fabrice Muamba: When Liam Stacey tweeted that he was glad that Fabrice Muamba had suffered a heart attack, he was sentenced to prison, chucked out of University and de-registered from his rugby team.

Both of these cases come under the umbrella of the Malicious Communications Act – an act that has already been around, but has become more well know due to the advance of social media and the growth of malicious trolls which seem to be infesting Twitter. The law of Confidentiality has also been thrown into the spotlight due to social media allowing everyone to say anything about anyone, at any time – making it increasingly hard to keep things confidential in a digital world. HMV has recently seen itself the centre of a confidentiality issue when HMV employees with access to the companies Twitter account told the world they were being fired. 

But what does this mean for the PR industry? For those responsible for the management of celebrity reputation, issues of confidentiality, privacy and malicious communications are extremely important. The digital era has allowed regular individuals to say whatever they want, and report whatever they want – with celebrities generally being at the heart of each scandal. For everyone else, it is important to consider how easily reputations – of anyone – can be destroyed online. We all know as PR’s that the Internet has given us unprecedented opportunities to create brands online – something which has been a fantastic addition to any client campaign. But if we can do it so easily, so can everyone else. Take for example Ryanair, who recently had to deal with a customer complaint in the form of a hate website… www.ihateryanair.co.uk. Unbelievably, Ryanair were unable to take any action against the creator of the website, it was his own domain and he could pretty much do what he liked, until he took £300 in advertising for the website (he was profiting off the Ryanair brand without rights or licensing to do so). Learning from his mistakes, he then set up www.ihateryanair.org.uk, which is still going strong with the tagline of ‘The world’s most hated airline’. A website which Ryanair can do nothing about. Suffice to say, I’m glad I’m not a member of its PR team.

The moral of the story? As a PR person, take disputes offline wherever you can. In this digital world, bad news travels fast.

Some eye opening facts…

When it comes to PR and the law, it’s content that we need to keep our eye on. For example, did you know that any press release, image, campaign material or content originally created by the PR organisation is by rights yours?  And if for whatever reason your client does not pay you, they have no rights to use any promotional material you may have put together for them. It is important for PR professionals to know that they would have legal backing should any dispute over material with a client should come to light.

On the flip side, we must also be aware of how to cover our own backs against legal issues of copyright.  As Steve wisely put it; “Don’t assume if it’s on the web then you can use it.” This is relevant when it comes to images, quotes and content that you might find on the web. Each of these has its own copyright by the persons whom originally created it, and even if you change 3 words – it doesn’t make it yours. So, if you need to use something which isn’t yours – cover yourself by checking the rights to the content and gaining approval. If you can’t, don’t use it – you could be allowing yourself liable for being sued! You even need approval to use your client’s logo on your own website.

Did you also know that posting content from one social networking site onto another (for example, copying content from Twitter onto Facebook) is infringing on copyright laws? Interesting, especially as most applications such as Twitter allows you to select an option which simultaneously posts your Tweet to your Facebook account.

Case studies: Case studies can be a key editorial piece in any client campaign. Most case studies require input from external parties, including images and quotes of which may not be originally written by the PR companies themselves. Most PR practitioners will know that a lengthy approval process must be conducted due to this, but is having approval in an email enough? Apparently not. In fact, Steve advised us that we should make any third party involved within our case study to sign a release form to cover us if we would like to use their images, quotes and content in years to come.

If like me you were as unaware to the legal issues that shadow our work as PR professionals, I’m sure this post has been as much of an eye opener to you as the lecture was to me. 

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