Defamation, Copyright, and Confidentiality and Privacy
Public Relations are often subject to legal battles due to the nature of their work (Bolden-Barrett, 2019) including publishing articles, photos, news, media, and more. These publications often include information about companies and employees and it is important to know a few laws to avoid legal repercussions and lawsuits (Bolden-Barrett, 2019; KellyWarner, 2020; Laws, 2019). The four most important laws as it pertains to public relations are defamation, copyright, confidentiality and privacy, and trade practices (Bolden-Barrett, 2019; KellyWarner, 2020; Laws, 2019).
Defamation is a published and false statement that harms the reputation of the subject (Bolden-Barrett, 2019; FindLaw, 2019; Laws, 2019). There are two types of defamation; slander is spoken defamation and libel is written defamation (Bolden-Barrett, 2019; KellyWarner, 2020). To classify a statement as defamation and therefore make the statement subject to legal lawsuits, the statement must meet the following criteria: publication, falisty, and the statement caused injury (FindLaw, 2019; KellyWarner, 2020). In cases where the victim of the defamation is a celebrity, public official, politician, or any other public figure, the victim must prove “actual malice” (FindLaw, 2019; KellyWarner, 2020). FindLaw (2019), in their article “Libel, Slander, and Defamation Law: The Basics,” reported,
“‘Actual malice’ was defined in the U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1988, Hustler v. Falwell. In that case, the court held that certain statements that would otherwise be defamatory were protected by the First Amendment…” (para. 13).
To prove actual malice, one must prove that the statement was made to intentionally harm the subject and the author knew at the time of publication that the statement was false (FindLaw, 2019; KellyWarner, 2020).
Freedom of speech and the right to protect one’s reputation are involved in defamation laws and due to the “delicate balance” state defamation laws differ (FindLaw, 2019). KellyWarner (2020) reports, “In Missouri, making a false accusation about a person to his face isn’t considered defamatory” (para. 1). Regarding the defamatory criteria of publication, Missouri law requires that the defendant must have had “knowledge that the statement would become public” (KellyWarner, 2020). Under Missouri law, vague statements are disqualified as defamation (KellyWarner, 2020). Defamation laws are important for a public relations writer to know to avoid committing defamation libel or slander.
Copyright laws are important for a public relations writer to know because public relations writers may often use statistics, photos, or information from another source. Bolden-Barrett (2019) writes,
“As handlers and generators of news and information, public relations experts must understand how copyright laws work. They also must know how to protect the annual reports, brochures, videos and other materials they generate” (para. 3).
Copyright laws protect an author’s work and the right to copy, distribute, adapt, and amend the work (Laws, 2019). In order to use something that is copyrighted, there must be permission to do so and it is strongly recommended that this permission be given via contract (Bolden-Barrett, 2019; Laws, 2019). Types of works that can be copyrighted include books, lyrics, compositions, videos, photographs, artwork, and more (Laws, 2019). Every copyright has a term. Laws (2019) explains, “…[the] protection period that is in place for the life of the author, creator, or owner of copyright, plus an additional 70 years after the date of such individual’s death” (para. 4). Laws (2019) claims that copyright infringement is the most important law. Copyright infringement occurs when there is unauthorized use of a copyrighted work (Laws, 2019).
In relation to copyright laws, a public relations practitioner must know about privacy and confidentiality because of the news and information public relations writers publish (Bolden-Barrett, 2019). Bolden-Barrett (2019) continues, “These activities reveal information on organizations and their employees that could jeopardize confidentiality” (para. 2). To avoid violation of privacy and confidentiality, a public relations practitioner should obtain releases, permission, and monitor the information that is released to the press (Bolden-Barrett, 2019). There is a difference between confidentiality and privacy. Confidentiality pertains to the information given to a physician, attorney, or therapist who can not give out information to third parties without consent and is considered an “ethical duty” (FindLaw, 2020). Privacy, on the other hand, is “rooted in the common law” and is an individual’s right to keep their personal affairs private (FindLaw, 2020). Both confidentiality and privacy are important for public relations writers to understand.
To avoid lawsuits, legal repercussions, and the detriment of the company presented, a public relations writer needs to understand laws pertaining to defamation, copyright, and confidentiality and privacy (Bolden-Barrett, 2019). With this knowledge, public relations writing will be effective and efficient.