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Public relations and public interest: The law is clear, do not mislead

One of the issues that I raised during my presentation at last week’s excellent PRmoment Masterclass was the strong connection between effective crisis PR and the public interest.

Crisis PR professionals are sometimes vilified in the media, but when they are doing their job effectively, they are performing an important public service.

In one of the most important of all libel cases, Lord Hobhouse said this; “No public interest is served by… communicating misinformation. The working of a democratic society depends on [its] members being informed not misinformed… the purveying as facts statements which are not true is destructive of a democratic society and should form no part of [it]”.

More recently, Mr Justice Tugendhat made the following observation in his judgment in Qadir v Associated Newspapers: “There can be no public benefit in publishing… misinformation”.

Do not mislead

The importance of the public not being misled is recognised by the IPSO, IMPRESS, NUJ, and Ofcom Codes; as it is in the code published by the US Society of Professional Journalists.

Nearly all Fleet Street titles are regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and its code begins with the stipulation that the titles that are governed by it must take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading material, including pictures or headlines which are not supported by the text.

The Ofcom Code, which governs all broadcasters, requires both that the subjects of programmes must not be treated unfairly and must also be given proper prior notice of adverse coverage. Broadcasters are more likely to comply with this if they are put on notice that their output will be scrutinised to ensure compliance. The same goes for Fleet Street titles and the IPSO Code.

Calm a crisis

As I explained during my seminar, both the media industry and the law have provided the means whereby the most effective form of crisis PR can be achieved, ie, whereby a looming PR crisis is either averted altogether or at least downgraded from a Richter Scale 9 crisis to (say) one that is Scale 3.

As a PR lawyer, those are my “go-to” provisions, even though I know Ofcom is generally an effective and truly independent regulator, IPSO is not. However, there is an increasing body of case law which makes it clear that whereas IPSO may not properly enforce its code, the Courts have effectively begun to do it in their place.

That means that when a client instructs me concerning a threatened publication which, to a lesser or a greater degree, includes false assertions, I know that confronting the newspaper with its obligation to comply with a code which Fleet Street editors had themselves written, is the most potent means of persuading the newspaper not to publish material which infringes the IPSO code.

Expert wisdom

One of the reasons that I know that is because, as well as having spent 30 years being a PR lawyer, I have spent the same period working as an editorial lawyer - making decisions prior to publication/broadcast about what can and cannot safely be said, and at the post-publication stage assisting media clients with regulatory and/or legal claims.

When you are legalling out of any form of material (print or AV), then you rarely have the time or luxury of being able to undertake any kind of analysis as to whether the allegations at issue are or are not true. Your job is to make an informed assessment of risk.

If you receive a communication from a respected PR lawyer explaining that the prospective publication is to a lesser or greater degree errant, you are put on notice of the likelihood that any such publication will not only be challenged, but not stand up to that challenge. You, therefore, effectively make the editorial decision that it must be dropped or at least edited in a way which much more closely aligns with the truth.

Article written by Jonathan Coad, Coad Law.

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