Public Relation practitioners have the responsibility to work within the law and not cross the wrong boundaries. Public relations writers must understand basic legal concepts that provide a framework for all your writing. Once in the field, public relations personnel must be aware that they can be held legally liable if they provide advice or tacitly support a client or employer’s illegal activity. This area is called conspiracy but you can also be considered a coconspirator with other organizational officials. The three arenas that I believe were most important for PR practitioners to worry about were: libel and defamation, invasion of privacy, and copyright law.
- “Libel is injury to reputation. Words, pictures or cartoons that expose a person to public hatred, shame, disgrace or ridicule, or induce an ill opinion of a person are libelous” (page 62). Defamation describe both libel, a printed falsehood, and slander, involving an oral communication such as a speech or broadcast mention. It’s also good to remember that with public figures — people in government, politics, and entertainment — the test is whether the publisher of the statement knew that it was false or had a reckless disregard for its truth.
- One area of possible liability and potential lawsuits is an organization’s treatment of its employees with regards to privacy. Public relations writers and staff are vulnerable to litigation with regard to employees’ privacy in at least five areas: employee newsletters, photo releases, product publicity and advertising, media inquiries about employees, and employee blogs and virtual communities. It is important to remember that some companies encourage their employee to have a blog to foster discussion on the Internet, but many companies put certain regulations on what their employees are allowed to blog about.
- Public relations writers should be have knowledge of copyright laws from two different perspectives; what organizational materials should be copyrighted and how to correctly utilize the copyrighted materials of others. A copyright, under current U.S. law, protects original material for the life of the creator plus 70 years for individual works and 95 years from publication for copyrights held by corporation. Not all materials, however, have copyright protection. Some material are considered to be in the public domain because of its age. For example, Shakespeare’s works and many literary classics, the music of many great composers and materials produced by the federal government can also be used freely.