5 Legal Issues PR Professionals Must Know

Deirdre O'Donoghue
Deirdre O'Donoghue  |  April 1, 2019

If working in public relations (PR) wasn’t hard enough, learning about specific legal issues is now crucial to PR success.

Sifting through boundless information on laws is extremely time-consuming, so we narrowed it down to 5 legal issues that you should know as a PR professional.

5 legal issues PR professionals must know

1. First Amendment protection laws

2. Commercial speech

3. Defamation laws

4. The role of the FCC

5. Intellectual property laws

As always, consult with a lawyer who has expertise in these areas before making any major legal decisions.

Legal issues and public relations 

If you have the misfortune of representing a client who has run-ins with the law, this information will assist you in making the right decisions. Learning about laws that relate to public relations will help you to avoid certain mistakes and strengthen your overall PR strategy.

What the First Amendment doesn’t protect

The First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights in the U.S.Constitution. On the most basic level, the First Amendment protects speech from government regulation, allowing individuals to speak freely and assemble in a peaceful manner.

However, not all types of speech are protected by the First Amendment.

List of types of speech not protected by the First Amendment

 

This is all great to know, but how does this affect PR?

Because most individuals have social media accounts, they can practice their Freedom of Speech from any place and at any time. If you have a client who is about to say the wrong thing, you can save them from publicly destroying their reputation and even facing charges. And if it’s too late and they already published a type of speech not protected by the First Amendment, you’ll know what they did and the impact their actions will have on his or her career, or life.

Commercial speech

As one of the types of speech that’s not protected by the First Amendment, commercial speech is one type of speech that is in the gray area of protection. Often times viewed as protected, but having diminishing rights, commercial speech is used to promote goods and services in order to make a profit.

Essentially, commercial speech is advertising. Advertising faces a lot of regulation and in order to determine whether that regulation violates the First Amendment, courts analyze the case against the Central Hudson test.

PR and advertising often intersect under the umbrella of strategic communications. Most advertising agencies have a PR team that handles the repercussions of advertising that isn’t protected under Freedom of Speech.

For example, if an ad agency put out an advertisement for a hat brand that said the hat will, “increase your ability to remember who people are,” this is a lie and therefore not protected commercial speech. From here, the PR team would analyze how the advertisement failed the Central Hudson test and then determine a PR strategy based on the analysis.

Defamation laws

Another type of speech that’s not protected by the First Amendment are defamatory statements. This includes libel and slander.

Defamation exampleImage courtesy of Marty Bucella

Often confused, libel is tangible and written, while slander is intangible and consists of spoken words or gestures. Understanding defamation and the key differences of libel vs. slander is especially important to PR professionals who represent high profile clients.

There are four criteria to prove defamation and bring forth a successful defamatory claim.

how to prove defamation

If your client is a victim of libel or slander, or if your client is guilty of defamation themselves, knowing the differences and how to prove it will only ease your stress if the day comes when you’re faced with these legal issues.

The role of the FCC

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is a government agency responsible for regulating the radio, TV, wire, and satellite. Tying in with the types of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment, the FCC tries to limit the amount of obscenity that reaches the public, especially children.

There is much debate about whether the FCC impedes on our Freedom of Speech, but each decision is made on a case-by-case basis. The Consumer Complaint Center on the FCC’s website allows individuals to file complaints about certain instances, like expletives used in an award speech, nudity on live television, and even robocallers.

Celebrities are most often the people slapped with fines from the FCC when they display some form of obscenity. These fines are what keeps the FCC going.

The major mission of the FCC is to bridge the digital divide and promote competition. So, when thinking about your clients’ public image, make sure they act appropriately in public to avoid FCC fines.

Intellectual property laws

The minute your client has an idea, they need to make it tangible. They can then protect it under different categories, depending on the work itself.

Learning trademark vs. copyright laws will help you determine the category in which to file. Put simply, trademarks protect brands and logos. Copyrights protect original artistic and literary works.

Protecting your client from the humiliation and frustration of having someone copy his or her idea will make you the PR hero you’ve always wanted to be.

How all of this relates to public relations

Public relations is the maintenance of business’ or individual’s positive reputation with the public. Threats to this positive reputation often take form in one of the above-mentioned legal issues. Knowing when to file a lawsuit and how to properly defend your client will save time and could be the difference between saving or destroying a reputation.

Lawyers handle the heavy lifting in these scenarios, but you can now be an active participant in every aspect of your clients’ public image.

Motion to dismiss

You didn’t go to law school for a reason, so I think five issues is enough to cover in one article. Keeping up-to-date with all aspects of PR will only benefit your career in the long-term. Snaps to you for you taking the time to dig into this stuff, it’s not easy.

If you’re on a roll, check out what PR materials you need to be successful.

Deirdre O'Donoghue
Author

Deirdre O'Donoghue

Deirdre O’Donoghue is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at G2. She brings her passion for research and creativity to her writing. In her free time you can find Deirdre fostering puppies or exploring the Chicago foodie scene.