Cheryl Fernandez-Versini was right to take swift legal action over that picture

When you're in the public eye, image and reputation are everything, so you can imagine Cheryl's heart sank this week when an Instagram of her standing near some white powder emerged.

Christopher Hutchings is head of media litigation at Hamlins LLP
Christopher Hutchings is head of media litigation at Hamlins LLP
As you might imagine, this picture didn’t go unnoticed and the fashion correspondent who took it was quick to remove it from the site and hand the copyright over to Cheryl, allowing her to dictate the fate of the picture. 

The popstar was also quick to bring legal proceedings to prevent republication of the image by other outlets. 

The several minutes this image spent on the social media site have been enough to place emphasis on just how sensitive a celebrity’s image is in the public’s eye and how quickly a reputation could be tarnished. Social media content spreads like wildfire, irrespective of there being any truth behind any associated claims or inferences. 

Not having to abide by the same rules as the press also means it is harder for this content to be controlled at least initially. 

In this instance Cheryl has taken the right first step – sending a warning letter and threatening legal action if the photo is republished. 

In the past Cheryl has been very vocal in her distancing from drug abuse and protecting this aspect of her reputation is essential. 

However, this instance shines the spotlight on the increasing problem of camera phones and social media apps like Instagram – people, whether celebrity or not, no longer have control over the sorts of pictures that can be taken of them and shared on social media platforms. 

Even if the picture is swiftly deleted the likelihood is that a news outlet may have captured it. 

When it comes to preserving reputation in these sorts of situations, a fast response and robust legal approach combined with effective PR is needed to change the direction of the story and stop it becoming a scandal. 

Although in this day and age, stopping a leak on the internet is difficult – especially when users can hide from the law behind domains and usernames – rapid action can successfully prevent further spread as well as displaying to the world that all legal action necessary will be taken against those continuing to publish.

It is not clear as to the basis for the legal action used in this instance but a threat to seek an injunction for invasion of privacy will be far more effective than threatening libel action. Injunctions are readily granted where the threat concerns information – whether accurate or false – of a private nature.

Conversely, courts will never prevent publication of defamatory allegations where the defendant says it can justify them and it is then necessary to pursue potentially lengthy libel action with all of the cost and risk of adverse coverage that could entail.

The threat of legal action should be combined with a co-ordinated PR strategy that can turn the story around.

Christopher Hutchings is head of media litigation at Hamlins LLP

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