Companies sell the public on their ideas, products, services and activities through public relations. Business laws that regulate industries also dictate how public relations practitioners design logos, write speeches, handle proprietary information and challenge the competition. Practitioners must understand and abide by copyright laws, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules and other regulations to avoid instigating legal action against their companies and clients.
A written or verbal statement that a person believes harms her reputation is considered “defamation.” This general term applies to any harmful communication; written defamation is called “libel,” and verbal defamation is “slander.” Defamation is a civil wrong, or “tort,” rather than a crime. But companies or clients whose public relations experts deliberately or inadvertently defame someone can be sued. Statements that prove to be true, however, are exempt from claims, regardless of how malicious or degrading they are. Practitioners handling political or competitive advertising campaigns are especially at risk for defamation charges.
Privacy and Confidentiality
The public relations office publishes newsletter articles on employee activities and uses staff photographs in brochures and promotional materials. It also pursues media coverage of organizational activities of interest to the public and responds to media queries. These activities reveal information on organizations and their employees that could jeopardize confidentiality. Getting releases from employees before using their photographs in brochures, and monitoring the information about organizations that’s released to the press, lowers the risk of confidentiality breeches.
As handlers and generators of news and information, public relations experts must understand how copyright law works. They also must know how to protect the annual reports, brochures, videos and other materials they generate. All material has copyright status the second it is created. However, copyright law doesn’t protect material; it protects only the way the material is expressed. For example, documented statistics on the number of endangered species is not copyright-protected material. But how the author presents these statistics, largely through words and tone, is protected. Public relations practitioners might avoid copyright infringement claims by getting permission to use other people’s articles, films, videos and photography. To protect their company’s own material, practitioners use the copyright symbol on websites, domain names and published works and register them with the Library of Congress’ Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.
A trademark is a symbol, graphic or slogan that distinguishes a company from its competitors. Public relations experts often commission trademark designs for their companies and clients to make that distinction. A company’s rights under the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office allow it to sue a competitor for using the same or a very similar trademark. These rights apply when a competitor uses the trademark on competing products or services and in the same geographic market where the trademark’s original owner uses it. Also, the competitor’s use of the trademark can’t confuse consumers. Public relations experts must protect their companies’ trademarks and also avoid duplicating or using competitors’ designs.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulates the financial industry. The SEC requires companies to publicly disclose information affecting their stock, which typically is a public relations function.
The Federal Trade Commission monitors deceptive business activities that frequently involve public relations. The FTC outlaws fraudulent, ambiguous and unsubstantiated claims in advertisement and product news releases. Misusing the word “free,” bait-and-switch tactics and deceptive pricing also are illegal under federal law. Public relations experts avoid violating the law by getting permission for testimonials and ensuring that product endorsers use the brands they’re promoting. They also release the truth about products and services and offer details about survey and test results.
Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.