PR professionals urged to show caution over correspondence with media

A series of embarrassing revelations about comms negotiations have highlighted the need for PR professionals to rethink the way they communicate with the media, senior industry figures have warned.

Revealed: News Corp's Frederic Michel sent 158 emails to the DCMS
Revealed: News Corp's Frederic Michel sent 158 emails to the DCMS

Last week, the Leveson Inquiry heard the full extent of the email, text and phone conversations between News Corporation lobbyist Frederic Michel and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as he lobbied over the BSkyB deal.

On Monday, The Guardian published emails from London Mayor Boris Johnson's former comms chief Guto Harri to a BBC reporter, in which he threatened to use contacts in the press to confront the BBC over its coverage of the Mayor.

On the same day, a film clip was leaked on YouTube that showed Downing Street comms director Craig Oliver berating BBC reporter Norman Smith over coverage. Sources have suggested that the revelations were symptomatic of a new climate for comms - where the activities of PROs are coming under increased scrutiny amid calls for greater transparency in the private and public sector.

As MSL London MD of corporate George Godsal explained, personal exchanges are increasingly being aired in public and so companies and PROs need to be more cautious about written correspondence.

Channel 4 News deputy editor Martin Fewell warned PROs at last week's PRWeek Crisis Comms conference that firms needed to be more transparent. He said: 'If you are not already operating on the principle of "what will this look like on the news tonight?", then you should be.'

Despite this, one former corporate comms head told PRWeek that while there has been an overall increase in legal and IT departments clamping down on email correspondence across their organisation in the past year, comms teams are yet to fully embrace the new rules of transparency in liaising with journalists. In particular, they continue to use 'off the record' briefings over email.

'It's very easy when you have friendly relationships with the press to overstep the mark. Journalists understand on and off-the-record, but the law is much more precise and does not have to take into account friendly relationships,' he said.

However, EADS UK V-P of comms Jeremy Greaves warned that email and social media 'has allowed people to put things in writing without engaging their brain first'.

Also read: Danny Rogers: Nothing in public life is safe from being leaked

HOW I SEE IT

George Godsal, MD, corporate, MSL London

The Leveson Inquiry has served as a wake-up call but I don't think businesses have woken up to the reality of where things are heading. Whatever you write or say, you have to communicate as if the information was to become public at some point.

Amanda Pierce, MD and chair, corporate & crisis, Burson-Marsteller

Private words committed to paper have always got into the public domain. When using email, Twitter and texts, which all feature speed and informality, the key is to think 'what does this wording say about me?', as well as whether it conveys the message intended.

IN NUMBERS

799 Number of texts sent by News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel to DCMS

257 Number of texts sent by DCMS special adviser Adam Smith to Michel

191 Number of telephone calls made by Michel to DCMS

158 Number of emails sent by Michel to DCMS

Source: Leveson Inquiry

Crisis management solicitor points way to safer contact

A top crisis management solicitor has advised PR professionals on points to consider when using emails and other electronic communication to avoid crises.

Eversheds associate Philip Crosbie told PRWeek that PROs should 'be aware that words used casually can take on unexpected implications under legal scrutiny', adding that they should 'use neutral and fact-based language, avoiding speculation and opinion'.

Crosbie added that people should not send 'post-incident emails denying responsibility or pointing the finger'.

'At the beginning of a crisis, explain the situation to your staff and ask that they refrain from sending emails to discuss what has happened,' he said.

Meanwhile, Euro RSCG London's executive director Andrew Robinson called on PROs to develop their knowledge of the legal implications of media correspondence by having crisis and risk management training: 'There should be a greater understanding of managing risk in how we communicate regarding what we should and should not say, as well as when legal privilege applies.

'In our profession, we should better understand these things, because as comms professionals who deal mainly in emails, it's important we know where we stand.'

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