Six myths about the media and the law

In my Crisis PR seminar, amongst the practical advice that I give from my experience as both a crisis PR and editorial lawyer, I deal with six myths which I have at various times encountered either being spouted by the media (primarily the print press), and/or which have been imbibed by PR folk or their clients. In this article I expose them for the self-serving nonsense that they are.

The print/broadcast divide

One of the times that I spoke about crisis comms at PR conference my slot was followed by a joint presentation by a BBC current affairs editor and the managing editor of a national newspaper. They were both ask to comment on my presentation. Their contrasting responses was testament to the profound ethical divide which, despite a degree of convergence, still exists between the broadcast and print media.

The BBC editor told the delegates that the BBC did indeed take note of communications by respected media lawyers in making editorial decisions, some of which were changed as a result. As a long-time programme lawyer, I know that to be true. The managing editor, an ex-journo and dyed-in-the-wool newspaper hack, said that no account was taken of such communications; and that all that was achieved by them was to convince the newspaper that the individual or company had something to hide. He was lying; as I know from my extensive work as an editorial lawyer for a wide variety of publishers, and from friends of mine who work in Fleet Street.

I can also illustrate the mendacity of that individual by my experience of visiting the legal offices of Associated Newspapers for a settlement meeting. There was a large noticeboard on which there was nothing but a letter from the firm at which I was then a partner (Schillings), which concerned four very high-profile celebrities who had formed something of a love square. There was a large red arrow pointing at the letter, and underneath it was a note from the head of legal stating that no copy was to go out about any of those individuals without his permission.

Myth One
If you threaten regulatory action and/or legal proceedings, you will be perceived as being defensive. I have already largely dealt with this one. There are or course print journalists who have sunk to a trough of cynicism where they think this, but that tells you more about them than the subject of the prospective story. In fact, if you are perceived as having a robust policy of investing in the protection of your corporate reputation or brand, then that is a good thing because the media will be more circumspect before they set out to trash them.

Myth Two
If you stand up against the media they will only make things worse for you in the future. In fact, the reverse is true. As an editorial lawyer for over 25 years, I can tell you that you legal out material via a two-stage process. Is there a or regulatory legal issue? In other words, is it an infringement of reputation or privacy, and/or a code breach? If the answer to that is “yes”, then how likely are they hold us to account? The answer to the second question needs ideally to be “very likely”.

Myth Three
There is no effective means of defending yourself in the face of adverse reporting. Nonsense. There are the regulatory codes (IPSO and Ofcom), and a variety of legal provisions that can effectively be deployed, as I have done successfully numerous times in my (other) capacity as a PR lawyer, all of which I outline in my seminar.

Myth Four
If you threaten regulatory or legal proceedings it will increase circulation of the story. This is obverse of the truth. The role of an editorial lawyer is to assess and mitigate against risk. A recognised PR lawyer injects risk by his mere instruction by the signal that is sent that this company takes the protection of its reputation seriously.

Myth Five
You will get a fair response from the media without the assistance of media lawyers. Alas no. Hubris, editorial agendas and the pursuit of profit are all powerful motivations which can only be parried by the prospect of a sanction for infringing the rights of others.

Myth Six
If you instruct a PR lawyer you will make the situation worse. There are occasions where the communication of facts, reason and ethics will not suffice – especially when dealing with the print press. Some measure of jeopardy must often be communicated to persuade a paper to abide by its regulatory and/or legal obligations.

Written by Jonathan Coad, Coad Law