Platform: Keeping tabs on electronic communications - An ignorance of the laws pertaining to electronic communications can leave PR agencies open to litigation, says Suzanne Kemble

As communications become increasingly global, unsuspecting PR practitioners are increasingly at risk of facing legal action for seemingly innocent acts.

As communications become increasingly global, unsuspecting PR

practitioners are increasingly at risk of facing legal action for

seemingly innocent acts.



The growth of the internet, and its use for PR communications, has

helped to fuel this risk. While a press release issued to UK journalists

may not raise legal concerns in this country, its publication on the

company’s web site brings a whole new realm of potential dangers.

’Ambulance chasers’ in countries with strict or complicated laws

relating to copyright or defamation are already starting to make a

living out of trawling the web, looking for legal infringements which

are often based on a minor technicality.



Clearly, PR practitioners cannot be expected to be experts in the law of

every country or even UK law, however getting legal advice on every

activity carried out by the agency would not only be costly and slow,

but also impossible to enforce all the time.



While libel laws are becoming more draconian, communications methods are

becoming more casual. Messages can now be delivered easily and rapidly

around the world by electronic means, but e-mail and voice-mail are

rarely checked rigorously for errors and libellous statements in the

same way as a press release or other written communication.



The experience of PR practitioners in the US gives us clues as to what

might be faced in the UK in the coming years. Even simply carrying out

client instructions has had its pitfalls when the instructions were not

questioned. US corporations working in highly competitive industries

have involved their PR agencies in ’sniping’ actions against their

competitors.



However, there is nothing to stop an aggrieved competitor suing a PR

agency for the loss of potential business resulting from libellous

activity.



Even more significantly, as attitudes and laws change, agencies have

found that their activities in promoting a product or service can later

land them unexpectedly in hot water. In the US a number of agencies have

become involved in the ongoing tobacco litigation difficulties, having

been accused of actively encouraging smoking.



In this country, we have yet to experience the astronomical damages

awards that are often made by courts in the US for copyright, libel or

negligence claims, but the legal costs in fighting such claims can still

be crippling.



A pounds 5,000 bill may be affordable to a sole practitioner and, while

larger agencies may be able to manage small claims, more significant

claims for errors in print or design work sub-contracted to suppliers,

or malicious acts by disgruntled ex-employees could affect even the

largest agency’s finances. For example, a UK PR agency was sued by its

multinational client for the actions of a temporary worker who

photographed the client’s new corporate identity in its development

stage and sold it to a national newspaper.



What many of these incidences have shown is that taking legal advice and

having a good management team running the agency are often not enough to

keep out of trouble. Litigation is increasingly becoming a recognised

method of dealing with grievances and complex foreign laws are affecting

day-to-day PR activities more than ever.



Global clients are looking for reassurance that their PR agencies have

adequate financial cover to pay for lawsuits or losses resulting from

mistakes that can sometimes occur.



In the future, we can expect financial protection, rather than merely

the advice of a good lawyer, to become a prerequisite for PR agencies

who want to compete successfully in the global marketplace.



Suzanne Kemble is manager of Hiscox Media.



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