ANALYSIS: A legal challenge for celebrity PROs - As the relationship between the media and publicity-hungry celebrities reaches a new low, Claire Murphy asks if celebrity PROs should consider closer links with the legal world

Naomi Campbell wasn't the only one happy to have won her privacy case against The Mirror last week. Thanks to the supermodel's legal team, newspaper editors are going to have to think more carefully about running their snatched photos of celebrities, and kiss-and-tell tales.

Despite ruling that The Mirror was within its rights publishing details of Campbell's drug addiction, Mr Justice Morland ruled celebrities were entitled to 'some space of privacy, even if they shamelessly courted media attention'. Music to celebrity PROs' ears.

The PR ramifications of this court case come as the legal and PR professions are working closer than ever. With the rise of group litigation lawsuits on this side of the Atlantic (the equivalent of the US class action), PR is being harnessed to attract more plaintiffs, and breed public sympathy for personal injury claims. Plaintiffs' legal teams will even seek publicity for their case to encourage a corporate defendant to settle at a higher price rather than risk their reputation.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Campbell case is the increasingly cosy relationship between celebrity PR agencies and lawyers. What better way to raise the effectiveness of your call to an editor before publication than to be able to say 'my legal partner has already drafted the writ'?

It was alleged in court by The Mirror that Freud Communications, which shares many celebrity clients with Campbell's lawyers, Schilling & Lom and Partners, actively encouraged Campbell to sue in an attempt to advance the law on privacy.

Freuds director Oliver Wheeler denies this, but there is no doubt that the agency has benefited from its relationship with the celebrated libel lawyers, and that for many Freuds clients - including DJ Sara Cox, who is suing the Sunday People - invoking libel law is the ultimate course of action.

'Libel and privacy litigation is the sharp end of public relations,' says Schilling & Lom and Partners senior partner Keith Schilling. 'We come in when the PR gets out of control.'

Schilling was the first lawyer to extract a front-page apology for a client (from the Daily Mail, for a story on Freuds client Brooke Shields).

The value to a celebrity of having representatives who can use official and unofficial channels to protect their reputation is immense.

Wheeler admits that use of the law firm's services in trying to prevent a story being published can be crucial, although he denies that this amounts to swapping the traditional process of PR for legal manoeuvres.

'We deal in protecting people's reputation and at any time there is always one issue that looks like it won't be resolved via the usual channels,' he says. Wheeler estimates that the agency needs legal help from Schilling about twice a month, although he emphasises that it is always the last resort.

Often, he adds, he calls a newspaper's lawyer directly, after being phoned by a reporter about a story: 'The papers have strengthened their legal teams and it's often easier to speak straight to someone who knows what they can and can't get away with. I don't even have to bother the editor.'

There are dangers inherent in going down the legal route, most obviously to a PR person's relationship with the media. If Matthew Freud is keen not to be seen to represent Naomi Campbell, preserving his relationship with Mirror editor Piers Morgan must be a consideration.

'A good PR person really should be able to defuse a situation to keep a bad story out of the papers if they have a strong enough relationship with the editor,' says Neil Reading, joint chairman of celebrity PR firm Reading Luchford GBH. 'Legal threats set an antagonistic tone to that relationship, and hell hath no fury like a tabloid editor scorned.'

As Reading points out, there is also a third option - an appeal to the Press Complaints Commission. But the PCC is often only able to order an apology - something that Freuds had already managed to get the Sunday People to print after pictures of Cox and her husband on honeymoon were published. By then the reputational damage is often done.

The legal route is often tried pre-publication, where a client, with their PRO and legal team, attempts to pre-empt damage to their reputation.

Jamie Theakston attempted to get an injunction to prevent the Sunday People printing details of his night at a brothel. His PRO, Julian Henry, managing director of Henry's House, became involved once the injunction failed and lined up a story, from Theakston's point of view, in the News of the World.

Theakston's lawyer, by coincidence, was also Schilling. But Henry's usual relationship is with Harbottle & Lewis, which he used for The Spice Girls, Pop Idol and stories about Will Young.

Most PR agencies have not gone down the route of forging an exclusive relationship with a law firm yet. Reading works with Schilling and Henry Bradman, for example, while Alan Edwards, The Outside Organisation CEO, prefers to work with a range of law firms.

However, the benefits of a close working relationship with a specialist law firm are evident. Despite the reticence of many in the PR industry to discuss how closely they work with lawyers, the value to a client under threat of exposure of having a complete reputation protection service on hand cannot be underestimated.

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