Recent allegations of service charge “rip offs”, suggest that RP’s are firmly in the media’s sights. Members of the senior management team (SMT) may face the prospect of a much deserved summer break interrupted by some difficult reading.
By putting in place an effective structure for dealing with the media, an RP will improve its ability to protect its reputation against hostile traditional and online media.
Reading “Private Eye”, one might be forgiven for perceiving that the usual role of the lawyer in dealing with adverse media is issuing defamation claim following the offending publication or broadcast. Regrettably, that approach is, all too frequently, a case of ”slamming the door after the horse has bolted”. It is also expensive and risks “collateral damage”. A better objective is to protect the RP’s interests in anticipation of publication – rather than afterwards.
Where members of the SMT are facing adverse media – or the prospect of it – lawyers can be proactive in a number of ways. For example:
- providing advice on the applicable codes of practice or conduct – for example the Editor’s Code of Practice, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code and the Code of Practice for Providers of Online Platforms;
- helping to collect and collate the relevant facts; and
- assisting in ensuring that your organisation puts across a consistent response, for example, by preparing Q&A’s;
While an RP may not have the luxury of a phalanx of media advisors, here are a few practical points to consider if facing adverse media:
- check the relevant facts. Before making a public response, it is critical to speak to everyone, at all levels, who may have been involved in the subject matter of the story. Later surprises may weaken your stance;
- find out what’s already been said by others within the organisation who have already been called by the journalist or on a social media feed. Ensure that the RP is giving a consistent message through a nominated spokesperson;
- take care with what is stated in internal emails on the issue – they could become content used externally;
- if the RP has made a mistake, own up to the error. Ideally, set out how the RP intends to address the issue;
- focus on inaccuracies and challenge them – they are universally recognised as indicative of bad journalism;
- never stop asking questions about how the piece was put together – in case the journalist may have something to hide – talk to the editor, the legal department and the journalist – this will increase the pressure to achieve your objective;
- while the threat of a legal action is often your biggest lever – it is rarely practicable. For RP’s which are charitable there are additional regulatory considerations to be considered before issuing proceedings;
- state clearly what you want – apology, correction, clarification, letter in next edition, promises about future conduct – but be proportionate;
- after publication seek agreement that your response is added to the publishers database – journalists rely heavily on easy accessibility to their databases;
- Consider keeping the regulator “in the loop” if you suspect there is an adverse story looming or that a journalist may call them up for a quote – regulators don’t like surprises on their “watch”. Sometimes, if forewarned, they might even ‘give you a steer’ about the journalist’s angle of questioning; and
- Respond promptly you will be taken more seriously. Remember, if you’ve told a journalist that you will call them back by a certain time – do so.
Sometimes a “double headed” approach with an RP’s PR adviser can be a useful strategy. The PR adviser can preserve good relations with the journalists. The RP, through its lawyers, is able to fully assert it rights.
How an RP responds to adverse media can tell its employees and other stakeholders a lot about the organisation.