Law, Ethics, and Public Relations Writers

By Joffe, Bruce H. | Public Relations Journal, July 1989 | Go to article overview

Law, Ethics, and Public Relations Writers


Joffe, Bruce H., Public Relations Journal


Law, ethics and public relations writers

FREELANCE writing is an integral part of the public relations professional's job. Savvy practitioners are well aware of the visibility and credibility-enhancing value of bylined feature stories placed on a client's behalf in trade, consumer and special interest publications. These articles, in addition to bringing a client's interests to the public's attention, often mean valuable referrals and additional compensation for the author.

In short, whether your're a selfemployed publicist, a corporate communications specialist hired to promote a specific business or organization, or an account executive of a public relations firm serving a variety of clients, writing for publication is a mainstay of professional activity. Therefore, it's imperative to be aware of the legal requirements and ethical conventions that govern written work.

"Bulletproofing" your work

In today's litigation-happy society, every byline is a potential lawsuit. Writers are increasingly popular targets of suits alleging libel, defamation and invasion of privacy.

Much has been written about how we can defend ourselves against lawsuits, but little has been said about how to avoid them. Public relations pros can use some practical methods to "bulletproof" their work and decrease the odds that they or their clients will end up in court.

These methods begin with the story idea. Has the story been done beofre? If so, fine, because you then have a point of reference. There is no prohibition against contacting the sources in published stories and conducting your own interviews with them--but you certainly can't copy or otherwise plagiarize another writer's work.

Most publications will ask a contributor to sign an assignment contract that typically contains a warranties and indemnification clause in which the author warrants that "nothing in the article or use of the article will infringe upon or violate any law, copyright, right of privacy or any other right of any person, firm or corporation." Further, the contract will usually provide that the writer indemnify the publisher against "any liability, costs or damages that the publisher suffers as a result of a breach or alleged breach of any of the writer's representations or warranties."

These clauses are written to protect the publisher's interests, not yours. Understanding that in most cases a writer must sign a contract to be granted an assignment, the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) recommends several ways for writers to reduce their potential risks:

* insist that the indemnification clause apply only to breaches ultimately sustained by a court judgment and not also to alleged breaches;

* indemnify the publisher only against "reasonable and actual attorney's fees";

* seek to limit your liability to the amount you are paid for the article;

* obtain the right to defend any action brought against the publisher to which your indemnification applies with counsel of your own choosing. (That way, you don't get stuck with the exorbitant hourly rates charged by a publisher's high-priced law firm.)

New copyright law

Along with other aspects of the law, such as libel, privacy and "fair use," which affect all writers, public relations pros must be especially attuned to the practical implications of the (new) Copyright Act of 1976. These provisions were reinforced when the United States joined the international Berne Convention Implementation Act, effective March 1, 1989.

The most significant premise of the act is that "creators" should own what they create. Thus, when a magazine now copyrights an issue, that copyright protects the contents but does not transfer the rights to those contents to the magazine. they are presumed to be owned by the contributor unless some or all rights are transferred to your client or the publisher. …

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