Peace Love & Sillyness

Avoiding Legal Hassles

Posted on: 09/20/2010

Libel & Defamation:

  • according to the AP Stylebook “libel is injury to reputation.”
  • juries award defamation damages if these 4 points can be proved by the injured party:
  1. the statement was published to others by print or broadcast
  2. the plaintiff was identified/is identifiable
  3. there was actual injury in the form of monetary losses, impairment of reputation, humiliation, or mental anguish/suffering
  4. the publisher of the statement was malicious/negligent
  • truth is the traditional defense against libel charges, but opinions also have a degree of legal protection under the First Amendment; this is known as fair comment privilege.
  • the key to avoiding defamation suits is to “watch your language”
  • it’s also a good idea to avoid unflattering comments/accusations about the competition’s products/services

Invasion of Privacy:

  • PR writers/staff are vulnerable to litigation w/ regard to invasion of employees’ privacy in at least 5 areas:
  1. employee newsletters – one should avoid anything that might embarrass or subject an employee to ridicule by fellow employees. a company newsletter/magazine doesn’t enjoy the same First Amendment protection that the news media enjoy when claiming “newsworthiness” or “public interest”
  2. photo releases – PR departments should take the precaution of (1) filing all photographs, (2) dating them, and (3) giving the context of the situation. this precludes photos that could embarrass employees or subject them to ridicule, & sometimes precludes using photos of people who are no longer employed or have died.
  3. product publicity and advertising – an organization must have a signed release on file if it wants to use the photos or comments of employees and others in product publicity, sales brochures, and advertising.
  4. media inquiries about employees – in general, employers should give a reporter only basic info (confirmation that the person is an employee, the person’s title & job description, the date of beginning employment & [if applicable] date of termination); DO NOT PROVIDE salary, home address, marital status, # of children, organizational memberships, & job performance.
  5. employee blogs and virtual communities – many organizations encourage employees to have a blog as a way of fostering discussion online and obtaining informal feedback from the public. IBM has published guidelines for employees who inhabit virtual worlds, including: don’t discuss intellectual property with unauthorized people, don’t discriminate or harass, & be a good Netizen.

Copyright Law – “copyright protection subsists….in the original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression now known or later developed.”

  • authorship: (1) literary works, (2) musical works, (3) dramatic works, (4) pantomimes and choreographic works, (5) pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, (6) motion pictures, and (7) sound recordings.
  • copyrights do not protect ideas
  • currently, a work is automatically copyrighted the moment it is “fixed” in tangible form
  • protects original material for the life of the creator plus 70 years for individual works & 95 years from publication for copyrights held by corporations
  • a customer who buys a copyrighted photo owns the item itself, but not the right to make additional copies
  • “work for hire” provides an exception to copyright; if you create a work as an employee of an organization, the copyright belongs to the organization.

Trademark Law: a trademark is a word, symbol, or slogan that identifies a product’s origin.

  • trademarks are always capitalized & used as adjectives
  • misappropriation of personality (the use of a celebrity’s name or image without their permission) is a form of trademark infringement

Regulatory Agencies:

  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – ensures that advertisements aren’t deceptive or misleading; also has jurisdiction over product news releases & other forms of product publicity (videos & brochures)
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) – closely monitors the financial affairs of publicity traded companies and protects the interests of stockholders.
  • Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – provides licenses to radio & tv stations, allocate frequencies, and ensures that the public airwaves are used in the public interest.
  • Food & Drug Administration (FDA) – oversees the advertising & promotion of prescription drugs, OTC medicines, & cosmetics.

these notes came from Public Relations Writing and Media Techniques


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