PR/Legal Divide Widens With Social Media

If you want to get some chuckles out of a group of PR professionals, mention the concept of the Legal and PR departments working seamlessly to co-manage reputation. Attorney-communicator relations is not at a low point; rather it’s really at a “no point.”  Surely there are exceptions to the rule, as Legal and PR share the boardroom or war room during a crisis or merger/acquisition.  Social media and all the good and bad that come with it should be forcing PR and Legal to partner.

At a few PR and public affairs conferences I’ve attended recently, communicators/panelists have lamented about having to run blog responses through Legal before they can be posted; they’ve complained about the lack of a social media policy within their organization due to “it being tied up in Legal.”  And with customers being able to vent their every annoyance online (Yelp, Facebook, YouTube, Gowalla etc), the lines between Customer Service and PR are clearly blurring.

A New York Times article raises another legal issue that I bet most PR practitioners are unaware of — the SLAPP ruling, also known as the strategic lawsuit against public participation. This means that, in some U.S. jurisdictions, consumers can be sued for defamation by saying something bad about your organization.  The June 1 NYT article profiles a man from Kalamazoo, MI, who vented online about the fee he had to pay T&J towing and now has more than 12,550 fans on his Facebook page, Kalamazoo Residents Against T&J Towing. T&J is suing him for defamation to the tune of $750,000.  The amount of publicity this towing company has gotten for suing this one irate customer and landing on the front page of the New York Times is priceless – in a bad way.  I’m guessing T&J doesn’t have a PR counselor to advise it on public relations and counted on its attorney to suggest and file the lawsuit – and to serve as its spokesperson.  Critics can certainly harm a company’s reputation, but any PR person worth his/her salt knows that critics need to be embraced. They are influencers as much as your fans are, and to sue them for complaining or venting will get you nowhere in the court of public opinion.

Diane Schwartz

  • Cathy

    Interesting item, but to make the blanket statement that “critics need to be embraced. They are influencers as much as your fans are, and to sue them for complaining or venting will get you nowhere in the court of public opinion” is incorrect in my view. Defamation is nuanced and complex and companies shouldn’t have to just sit still and let critics say false, damaging things about them. Suing may be extreme action, but sometimes it’s warranted. And people need to be aware that publicly and falsely slamming companies may have consequences.

  • Reed Bolton Byrum

    If a company is going through a crisis, it will need collaborative approaches from public relations and legal departments to effectively disclose and communicate. That collaboration needs to have been developed prior to a crisis. If a company is in financial servcies, it is heavily regulated the collaboration of public relations and legal will be more frequent. Legal ideally should counsel about communications and avoid blocking them or obfuscating. Legal can only manage risk involving regulations and litigation. Public Relations does the heavy lifting when it manages a company’s reputation for all of its key audiences.

    I stress “collaboration”. Public relations needs to be persuasive in its efforts to communicate to ensure both CEO and Board understand the way to a viable future is through candor and honesty, not through a stonewall.