Crisis Management – How PRs and Legal Teams Can Work Together
Last year’s #MeToo outing of Philip Green by The Telegraph shone a spotlight on the use of the law and, in particular, injunctions during crisis communications.
It’s not the first time a ‘super-injunction’ has done more harm than good and whilst there are legal options that can be employed to help mitigate the impact of negative press, two things stand out from that particular case:
- High profile figures who behave badly are likely to get called out, whatever tactics they might employ to try to squash negative publicity
- There may be relevant legal routes to take during a crisis, but they could do more harm than good
When to Call the Lawyers
If a story is threatening to break in the press but is based soundly in legally obtained facts, and has clear public interest at its heart, there is little that legal action can do.
Indeed, in this instance, making legal threats could actively create more negative headlines.
However, if any of these criteria are relevant, then there may be a case for calling on our legal friends:
- The story contains false information
- The story breaks regulatory rules from Ofcom, IPSO or broadcaster-specific guidelines, such as the BBC’s
- Private or confidential information is being used
- The story is not in the public interest (which is very different to the public being interested in a story)
- Where information might be in contempt of court
- Where we believe information has been obtained using illegal means
How the Law Can Help
The law can be used to stop publication, to correct information, to prevent specific details being published, or to publish a retraction or apology after the event.
In most instances, the PR and legal teams will work together towards the same outcome but will employ different strategies and tactics.
The PR consultant will talk to the journalist, using their knowledge of the publication, its readers and the client to ensure an article is accurate and fair. A lawyer will be in touch with the publisher, editor or the publication’s in-house legal counsel to discuss legal points.
A PR pro who is skilled in media relations will want to work closely with the writer to achieve the following key aims:
- Present the subject’s side of the story
- Correct any misinformation
- Provide proof to contradict falsehood
- Provide additional information to demonstrate positive angles if relevant
The lawyers might take the following legal routes to change the outcome before publication, or to address a story once it has been published:
- Defamation – libel or slander
- Malicious falsehood
- Breach of confidence or misuse of private information
- Data protection or the Right To Be Forgotten (RTBF)
- Regulatory obligations
Libel Law and Injunctions
The ‘serious harm’ test has made it more complicated for companies to sue for libel, which must prove that serious financial loss has resulted from the story.
As we have seen in the case of Philip Green, there are possible disadvantages of bringing an injunction to stop publication. Not only can an injunction be hard to obtain, but the potential for negative publicity is high. The #MeToo story in TheTelegraph is an excellent example of the damaging column inches it can generate.
Data Protection and the Right To Be Forgotten
Addressing the publication of inaccurate or private data may also be tackled under the Data Protection Act 2018. The Information Commissioner has issued guidance on freedom of information which could have relevance to the media publication of personal information. More information can be found on the ICO website.
GDPR also offers the right to be forgotten, which could be helpful when stories containing incorrect information are published online. Using the Google removal request form will lead to the removal of URLs that might appear in searches made with the organisation’s or individual’s name.
Cyber-Crisis – Be Prepared
A crisis can take many forms, but information breaches resulting from a cyber attack are particularly topical. The first major data breach of 2019 is a whopper. Dubbed Collection 1, 773 million records have been exposed. It’s clear that whilst data breaches can be highly targeted there is an increased danger of being swept up in large scale indiscriminate attacks.
Whether an organisation is specifically targeted or is part of a wholesale dump of information online, data breaches can result in negative publicity for those involved. For example, information can be taken out of context or companies can get tarred with the same brush as those with more flexible ethics.
Preparing for the worst is always wise. Defining what issues might lie ahead is the first step to crisis planning work; consider your responses, prepare your tools and be ready to act quickly.
The first few hours of an issue breaking are critical; the further news spreads on the web and social media, the harder it is to contain.
Finally, as every PR worth their salt knows, a good reputation is based on what corporations or individuals do and how they behave. PR professionals often take the role of ‘corporate conscience’ and, arguably, in today’s climate of transparency and corporate ethics that role is more important than ever.
Nichole is the first point of contact for crisis communications training and management. Get in touch if we can help you safeguard your reputation.
01481 729 229 or firstname.lastname@example.org