Brand Beckham tarnished by leak of emails between him and his publicist - a legal perspective

David Beckham and his advisers have been left reeling after the release of 18.6 million emails and documents obtained from the servers of Doyen Sports, the agency responsible for running the ex-footballer's PR machine.

High-profile individuals should assume they are targets for hackers, warns Michael Patrick (©DavidBeckham.com)
High-profile individuals should assume they are targets for hackers, warns Michael Patrick (©DavidBeckham.com)
According to reports, the leaked emails suggested that Beckham had previously used his charity work as part of a campaign to be awarded a knighthood. 

In the messages, the former England football captain is alleged to have criticised the Honours Committee and complained about the singer Katherine Jenkins being awarded an OBE. 




Other emails reportedly saw Beckham react negatively to a suggested donation to Unicef, of which he is a goodwill ambassador.
The Beckham PR machine hit back over the weekend with his spokesperson releasing a statement claiming that the messages were "outdated material taken out of context" and gave a "deliberately inaccurate picture". 

The statement also claimed that the alleged emails were "hacked", "doctored" and "private".

The story has now taken a fresh turn with the suggestion that the hackers, apparently from Russia, had actually tried to blackmail the sports agency into paying them between €500,000 and €1m in return for them not disclosing the material. 

Regardless of whether Beckham was the intended target of the hack or not, the case highlights wider lessons relating to cyber security for all high-profile individuals (not just celebrities) and their advisors. 

While there has been an increasing focus on cyber security in the corporate world, the propensity to communicate and store highly confidential information in electronic form means that an array of highly sensitive material, personal and professional, is available to anyone who breaches the system. 

As Doyen Sports have seen over the past few days, the reputational and financial impact of a cyber attack can be just as damaging to a firm of advisors as to the individual themselves. 

While the risk cannot be eradicated, a considerable amount of work can be done on the legal, as well as technical and communications side, to reduce the risk and to be prepared to respond well to any breach.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that Beckham and his advisors are the alleged victim of a criminal offence.

Michael Patrick, partner at Farrer & Co

 
It is now accepted that corporations should be prepared for ‘when’, not ‘if’ they suffer a cyber attack. High-profile individuals and those that act for them should operate on the same lines.

Going forward it is too early to say what damage has been caused to the Beckham brand by what has happened and what action he and his advisors can now take to mitigate the situation. 

According to reports, Beckham obtained an injunction against the Sunday Times last year to prevent the publication of the emails. However, it now appears that he and his advisors chose not to try to stop the Sun publishing its story, presumably mindful of the PJS legal debacle last year and the fact that the email cache had also been leaked to a series of European websites, which began publishing them during the course of last week.

One should always be careful about second guessing the advice given by others, but this situation is clearly different to PJS. 

In that case the celebrity involved sought to stop the press reporting on an extra-marital threesome. 

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that Beckham and his advisors are the alleged victim of a criminal offence. 

Whether it was the correct decision not to try to stop The Sun from publishing its story will remain to be seen. 

In any event Beckham and his advisers must hope the public will consider the emails to be embarrassing as opposed to anything more sinister. 

For now, though, the messages make for uncomfortable reading and he and his advisers must be hoping there are not further revelations to come.

Michael Patrick is a partner at Farrer & Co

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