While some PROs worry about being heavy-handed, there is no doubt that securing the services of a lawyer is sometimes an effective way of killing a damaging story
Celebrity PR expert Gary Farrow explains when a newspaper editor receives a call from someone like Keith Schilling (see below), ‘they know he isn’t going to muck around’.
Lawyers can help minimise reputational damage in a number of ways, including securing injunctions or helping to negotiate clarifications or corrections. While clients are keen to avoid huge legal bills, ‘sometimes there is a need’, says Farrow.
Mantra MD Lawrence Dore explains that involvement with lawyers goes well beyond celebrity PR. If a story seems to be brewing in the corporate world, ‘we consult the lawyers on what we should say on the record. Anything we say could be used in court’.
But while some PROs consult lawyers on an almost daily basis, many others rarely think about legal matters.
Predictably, lawyers are keen to change this, and some offer PR agencies free counsel and organise workshops. The CIPR also offers legal advice on copyright, celebrity endorsement and data protection.
Here, PRWeek profiles three heavy-hitters that experienced PROs often call on for legal support.
Dan Tench partner
Staff 85 partners and 248 lawyers, of which three partners and three lawyers work in the Media Litigation practice
Headquarters Holborn, London
Has acted for a number of undisclosed FTSE 100 companies, Sunderland Housing Group, broadcaster Jon Snow and actor Tom Cruise.
Olswang does a great deal of corporate reputation management work, often partnering agencies such as FD and Brunswick. Tench explains media crises have both a PR and a legal side.
The firm’s work covers high-profile individuals too. It recently secured a prominent apology in The Mail on Sunday, after the newspaper incorrectly accused Jon Snow of having an affair.
The ‘classic situation’, according to Tench, is for newspapers to threaten to run an extremely damaging story, and for PRs to call lawyers in when they cannot stop it themselves.
‘If it is a genuinely damaging allegation it is unlikely that it will be published without the say so of the newspaper’s in-house lawyer, so we try to predict what is going through that lawyer’s mind, then write to them telling them why we think it cannot be published,’ he explains. ‘Our aim is to ensure that it is not published at all and we are far more likely to have success than the PR or the client working alone.’
Another benefit to legal action is that lawyers can serve injunctions on all the media, meaning that no-one can publish anything. But PROs should be aware if an injunction fails, the press will no doubt dub it “the story they tried to gag”,’ he warns.
The internet also presents an increasing problem. While traditional media will, more often than not, ‘take the sensible step’ on a story, the net is often used as ‘a platform for the misinformed and the malevolent’.
Olswang recently acted for Sunderland Housing Group which was being targeted by an abusive website. FD Reputation Management MD Jonathan Hawker brought in Olswang and the site was closed down.
Developments in the legal world often have an effect on PROs, says Tench. Last September it was decreed that court files would no longer be sealed – ‘this means that the particulars of the claim in civil proceeding will be available to third parties, including journalists,’ Tench explains, ‘but lawyers can apply for the files to be sealed.’
HARBOTTLE & LEWIS
Gerrard Tyrrell Head of litigation
Staff 22 partners and 82 lawyers
Headquarters Hanover Square, London
Has acted for Virgin Atlantic, Kate Moss, the Prince of Wales and Princes William and Harry, David and Victoria Beckham.
Tyrrell (r) has worked on some of the highest profile legal disputes in the country, often partnering celebrity and corporate PROs.
Sometimes he works with the client’s existing PROs, although at other times Harbottle & Lewis will ‘bring a PRO on board or recommend someone’.
His experience includes representing Virgin Atlantic when it sued British Airways over an alleged ‘dirty tricks’ campaign: ‘It started off very much as a business case but was eventually fought out both in the law court and in the press, with Virgin’s Richard Branson and Will Whitehorn pitted against BA’s PR machine,’ he recalls.
In 1993 British Airways apologised and paid more than £3m in damages and legal costs.
Tyrrell says his firm receives inquiries about injunctions ‘two or three’ times a day. But he discourages anyone he thinks is being ‘trigger happy’.
‘The legal landscape has changed over the last few years. The issue used to be whether or not to sue for defamation, but the use of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 [the right to respect for private and family life] and particularly the decision in the case of McKennitt vs Ash – the ruling of which redefined the definition of ‘public interest’ –has opened up whole field of individuals and corporations being able to protect private information, both true and false. For the past six months that has been where the action is,’ he says.
The PROs Tyrrell himself deals with are – he says –’ very clued up on legal matters – but that’s what I would expect’.
‘PROs should have a good working knowledge of the legal restraints under which they can operate,’ he advises.
However, he adds: ‘It’s clear to me that not many people have a real appreciation of what can be achieved, and also of the pitfalls that await them. I see that on a daily basis: clients who have got into trouble because of the advice their PR team has given.
Keith Schilling senior partner
Staff Six partners and 15 lawyers
Headquarters Dean St (moving to Bedford Square in September), London
Has acted for: Naomi Campbell, GlaxoSmithKline, Britney Spears, JK Rowling, Roman Polanski, Las Vegas Sands
High profile media lawyer Keith Schilling (r) has worked on a raft of well-known cases involving celebrities, although the majority of his firm’s work is corporate.
‘The firm is known for being innovative. Where there is not a law we will strive to create one, as we did with Naomi Campbell and the privacy law. That is now a significant weapon in the PR armoury,’ he says, referring to the 2004 Campbell vs Mirror Group Newspapers case. Schilling says that it is often PROs who ‘set the agenda’.
Recently his firm was hired by Britney Spears US publicist to stop the flood of stories about her in rehab.
Schilling argues that injunctions such as these do not damage relationships between PROs and journalists: ‘Journalists understand companies have commercial reasons for wanting to keep certain reports out of the press. But if anyone makes enemies, it will be us, not the PROs. We go to the head of legal or the editor and play the ‘bad cop’. The journalists are more likely to curse “the bastards at Schillings” than PROs.’
And while ‘no editor wants to be the subject of an injunction’, it does mean rivals cannot publish the story either.
Lawyers and PROs work closely together during court cases. In some, Schillings aim to secure a blanket reporting ban. If not, the firm offers PROs ‘instantaneous transcripts’ of court proceedings, and will consult on whether a media response needs to be prepared.
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