The Conservative peer has launched a wide-ranging legal response to thousands of people who have smeared his name after he was falsely accused of paedophilia following a Newsnight report that did not name him.
Bell Pottinger has been appointed to handle comms around McAlpine’s response. Bell Pottinger chairman Lord Bell told PRWeek: ‘I hope this might be a watershed moment in slowing the growth of smearing, where a number of people get severely punished for it.
‘The more that PR practitioners and clients do this, the more successful we will become. One can’t stop it completely, but it’s something worth fighting for.’
It is a standpoint that is being echoed by others in the comms industry, as high-profile clients become emboldened by McAlpine’s approach.
PHA Media founder Phil Hall told PRWeek that since news of McAlpine’s actions broke, his agency has been approached by four clients – including two high-profile sports stars – to work on social media-focused reputational issues using an element of legal challenge.
However, Hall warned that pursuing legal action in certain scenarios could inflame the situation, stating: ‘Sometimes raising an issue around social media can attract more publicity than it’s worth and make things twice as bad.’
Gideon Benaim is a partner at media lawyers Michael Simkins, specialising in reputation protection.
He said he had seen an increase in discussions with PROs looking at pursuing legal routes for clients whose reput-ations have been attacked on social media in recent weeks.
This is part of a wider trend during the past two years, in which Benaim had seen a ‘200 to 300 per cent’ increase in work with an internet element, much of which was social media. ‘We are seeing more PROs and lawyers taking action around social media, by first complaining to social media sites and then pursuing legal recourse,’ he said. ‘We are also seeing the law becoming more accommodating to this.’
Last month, it was revealed that director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer QC was drawing up guidelines for policing social media, which are scheduled to be published before Christmas.
Legal team readies to pursue online cast of thousands
Lord McAlpine’s team will potentially have 10,000 leads to chase from Twitter users who tweeted or retweeted his name following the BBC’s Newsnight exposé.
A two-level strategy has so far been employed to cover the 1,000 tweets and 9,000 retweets identified as potentially defamatory. This involves asking the vast majority of those involved with spreading the information on Twitter to make a formal apology and donation to charity.
However, according to McAlpine’s solicitor Andrew Reid, higher profile users are ‘a separate matter’, with figures such as the Speaker’s wife Sally Bercow among those threatened with being sued.
Lord Bell, whose agency is understood to be working ‘side by side’ with McAlpine’s legal team, called the process of identifying people ‘long and complicated’.
He said: ‘The advantage of this is that it is a black and white case. But the process is like having an onion and then taking each skin off. We can’t proceed with legal action if we’ve only taken off the top skin, as we don’t know what defence we may face and we may get caught out.’
McAlpine was also understood to be pursuing redress with ITV, having been paid £185,000 by the BBC.
HOW I SEE IT
Mark Borkowski, founder, Borkowski.do
I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls [from potential clients] driven by what is happening. It is a potential tipping point, but at the moment there is a lot of hype around the story and what will happen next. But it has the potential to make people think twice before they tweet.
Phil Hall, founder, PHA Media
McAlpine’s case is a classic example of getting on the front foot when fighting a crisis. Lord Bell is making a great case for his client and everyone in PR management. However, things are not moving quickly enough – laws are being set up by case law rather than through proactive government legislation.
10k Number of tweets and retweets being assessed by McAlpine’s team*
59k Followers of Sally Bercow on Twitter when she referenced McAlpine**
£185k Payment the BBC made to McAlpine after Newsnight exposé**
£5 Donation to charity requested from many offending Twitter users***
*The Times; **Guardian.co.uk; ***Mail Online