Publish and be damned careful

March 5th, 2009 by Jon Clements

There’s a great line in Al Pacino film, Carlito’s Way, when his eponymous ex-mobster character delivers a stark lesson to corrupt lawyer, David Kleinfeld, played by Sean Penn. After Penn has killed the head of an Italian-American crime family with a tyre iron around the head, Pacino recommends he keep a loaded pistol close at hand because: “You a gangster now, Dave”.

This makes me think of the shift one makes when having the power to press “publish” on your blogging software and bring your carefully crafted thoughts to the world. To paraphrase Pacino, “You a publisher now!”

And in the new dawn of social media, that’s something PR Media Blog is encouraging companies to do, alongside a chorus of others persuading them that the customer (consumer, B2B or public sector) is no longer expecting the internet to consist of well-designed but static websites of one-way communication, but a dynamic stream of compelling content and mutually beneficial conversation. Hence, whatever line of work you’re in, publishing such material online – that demonstrates your expertise and creates a dialogue – should make good business sense.

But while we urge you to press “publish”, we also urge you to beware. One of the critical lessons learned at journalism college is about the laws of libel and slander. They are there to protect those whose reputation has been unfairly sullied by the written word, though they are also used unfairly by powerful, vested interests to scare away journalists willing to probe and uncover wrongdoing.

But publishers are used to this and have lawyers well-versed in libel law on standby. That’s the nature of the game; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But if YOUR business has launched a blog, has a Twitter feed, populates a Facebook page or contributes to online forums, regardless of whether you make concrete mixers, cable ties or cola, that makes you a publisher too.

This week at the High Court, several newspapers and a broadcaster have agreed to pay “substantial damages” to a mother who felt she was wrongly accused of poor parental supervision, after the party her daughter organised through a social network ended up with some minor damage, but not the destruction the newspapers had alleged.

A pertinent element of this publishing saga is the fact that comments added to the newspapers’ online versions of the story (n.b. people should be able to add comments to your blog posts too) turned out to be false, which doesn’t help your case if you’re defending your right to publish and be damned in the High Court.

The likelihood is that most of what you’d ever want to say online will be, in the eyes of the law, “fair comment”. The same goes for those who decide to comment on your blog posts or interact with you elsewhere in the world of social networks and forums. But there’s substance in the old proverb that “the pen is mightier than the sword”; so seek good advice from those accustomed to publishing material online and just pray that David Kleinfeld doesn’t end up your lawyer.

About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''

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