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
However, there is nothing to stop an aggrieved competitor suing a PR
agency for the loss of potential business resulting from libellous
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
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.