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The law, ethics and crisis communications: "The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society being informed, not misinformed"

In some quarters the legitimate and important role played by PR practitioners, especially those who do crisis work, is held in low esteem. 

This is to some extent self-inflicted by a minority of practitioners who demonstrate a complete absence of ethical standards. But where a crisis comms practitioner does their job well and prevents the public being misled by the publication of false information, an important public service is performed.

"There is no human right to disseminate information that is not true."

This has been recognised at the highest level of the judiciary. In the most important media case heard by the courts in recent years, a distinguished Law Lord said this; “The liberty to communicate (and receive) information has a similar place in a free society but it is important always to remember that it is the communication of information not misinformation which is the subject of this liberty. There is no human right to disseminate information that is not true. No public interest is served by publishing or communicating misinformation. The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society being informed not misinformed. Misleading people and the purveying as facts statements which are not true is destructive of the democratic society and should form no part of such a society.”

"The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society being informed not misinformed"

People must not be misled

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

It seems however that this has yet found its way into the thinking of most of the PR community. I have yet to find a crisis comms website from any of the major agencies which offers prevention rather than cure for media crises, despite the fact it should be the starting point for all crisis comms.

The prevention of the publication of false and damaging claims about any entity, product or individual is a public service which all PR practitioners should aspire to. I say this as a media lawyer who throughout his career has supported and defended good public interest journalism, which is a vital constituent of a healthy democracy.

Crisis comms helps journalism

Legitimate crisis comms is no enemy to good journalism. If your company or client has rightly been called to account for some valid reason, then the appropriate PR response is contrition and change. But neither consumers nor voters can make informed decisions if they are fed misinformation by the immensely powerful forces behind the commercial media.

That is why there are regulators, editorial codes, and legal provisions for our protection against the dissemination of false information. Crisis comms practitioners sell both their clients and the public short if these are not properly deployed in their work since these provisions exist for that very purpose. Ultimately, they may also face a negligence claim if there is an effective regulatory or legal solution which is not secured. Make sure that you do your work using all the materials and tools available. Effective crisis PR work benefits not only your client, but the public as whole.

Written by Jonathan Coad, crisis PR lawyer

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