Back to basics

CommsCamp15 – media law

The Defamation Act 2013: Complete and Unabridged

This session was led by David Banks who you can find on Twitter @DBanksy

  • Changes to libel law came in on 1 January 2014 via the Defamation Act 2013
  • 12-month time limit to start legal action for libel if it appeared in print or online – used to be no time limit for online, this has now been brought into line with print
  • libel claimants have to show that their reputation has been seriously harmed
  • if you’ve got something wrong, apologise early and remove or correct defamatory content
  • if a media or other outlet has got something wrong about you, you may be able to ask that a correction/apology is prominently displayed, The Times recently put a correction on their front page
  • apologies and corrections are legally considered to undo any harm caused. This can be significant, as was seen in the Sunday Mirror and Midland Heart Housing Association ‘Benefits Street’ case
  • if you’re issuing press releases or similar about prosecutions, stick to the facts of the case and avoid comment on the character or behaviour of the person who’s been prosecuted
  • if frontline workers are attacked they can take out a personal libel case, councils and other public sector organisations are becoming increasingly politically wary of taking action on individuals’ behalf. In 2012 The Guardian questioned if councils should be doing this 
  • newspapers and other publishers are not immediately liable for unmoderated comments under their articles, however they do become liable if they’re notified of an issue and don’t do something about it
  • the comments function on Facebook pages cannot be turned off or moderated, but comments can be hidden or deleted. Facebook would be liable for comments made if they were notified of libellous content and they didn’t take any action
  • a council cannot sue for libel, as reported by The Independent following an action brought by Derbyshire County Council against The Times and others, “because any governmental body should be open to uninhibited public criticism and to allow such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech.”
  • What is the definition of a ‘publisher’? If you have more than two people publishing news-related content, you may be defined as a publisher and be sued for libel as outlined in the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Exceptions include public bodies and charities publishing “news-related material in connection with the carrying out of its functions.” and multi-author blogs that come under “microbusiness” definitions
  • From 3 November 2015, publishers that are not part of a charter-approved regulator, and are sued for libel or harassment, may end up bearing both their and the claimant’s costs (again, as outlined in the Crime and Courts Act 2013)
  • The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) which replaced the Press Complaints Commission post-Leveson inquiry, will not be charter-approved, but another regulator – IMPRESS – aims to be

Photo: The Defamation Act 2013: Complete and Unabridged by RobertSharp via Flickr


The art of promotion

I’ve seen a few good examples of social media-related promotion lately. They’re all pretty meat and potatoes ideas, but they get the job done. It’s also interesting to see how social media has become mainstream in so many settings.

The play’s the thing

This was a great basic example of back-of-the-toilet-door advertising at The Vaudeville Theatre in London. Always a winner as you have a captive audience.

Poster for theatre production of Handbagged listing social media sites and hashtag

The Twitter account had someone monitoring it, replying to and retweeting messages. A good addition to the night. It’s an excellent play by the way.

Keep on running

On a very chilly February morning at the Silverstone half marathon – I was a spectator, not a runner – Adidas were doing a roaring trade giving away free shoelaces promoting their Boost trainers.

Adidas branded laces and marathon runner number

It was a practical giveaway that promoted their product, their hashtag  and could well see runners wearing Adidas laces in other brand trainers. Promotion staff cheerfully asked runners to tweet the hashtag, it was also emblazoned on every runners’ race number and along the course. There was no chance you were going to miss it.

Advertising hoardings showing the Adidas #Boost hashtag and other brand logos


Please take photos

At Spitalfields Market one Sunday afternoon, I was surprised at the number of “No photos please” signs at stalls, presumably to protect creative ideas. Then one stall fabulously bucked the trend.

Sign asking people to take photos and publish them on social media sites

Well played The Last Stop For The Curious for making people smile and involving people in actively promoting you. Great hats too.

Last Stop For the Curious hat stall with stall-owner


Stall sign for hat sellers Last Stop For the Curious









One that got away

As well as all the good examples, I came across a missed opportunity from Transport for London. Having grown up in London I have a huge affection for the Tube and often think their posters are excellent.

London Underground poster promoting their new travel alert Twitter account

The design is clever, I love the Twitter bird in the roundel, but it’s lacking a vital element – the handle for the Twitter account it’s promoting. According to the Huffington Post the posters have been the same since January this year. One of those good reminders of what not to do.

Freezing cold and ants and I tools old. Alright?

In 1972, Italian comedian Adriano Celentano recorded a song of perfect gibberish. Called Prisencolinensinainciusol, it was written to: “…have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything.”

Every day, organisations unwittingly go down the same path as Celentano, releasing messages and information that sound as though they should make sense, but are actually gobbledegook.

Making your message clear and easy to understand on first hearing or reading is a basic requirement of good communication. Too often though, messages are  buried under jargon and language as far away from Plain English as can be. You may think something is understandable, but to a targeted audience it can sound like nonsense.

Jargon is a huge barrier to communication, and local government – like all of the public sector –  is awash with it. I saw plenty of councils tweeting about ‘waste and recycling collections’ over Easter, what’s wrong with’ bin collection’, or even ‘your bin day’? Jargon can also breed nasty attitudes. Chris Bolton has recently blogged about the dark side of jargon which is a must-read.

Plain English is what we should all aim for. Making your communications understandable is not ‘dumbing down’, it’s what you should be aiming for. The Plain English campaign has some great resources to help squash jibberish.

My GP surgery on-hold message says: “All of our operators are currently busy and you are being held in a queue. We will endeavour to connect you as soon as possible once an operator becomes available.” After hearing this a few times my blood pressure starts to creep up. I’d much rather they said “Thank you for waiting. We will answer your call as soon as possible.” Straightforward and to the point. Like all comms should be. After three: Freezing cold and ants and I tools old. Alright?

Does local government PR need some PR?

Three sewing dummiesA few years ago I went to a PR student speed dating event. I was one of about 20 practitioners speaking to undergraduates about the sectors we worked in and what our working days were like.

Students from two colleges spoke to each of us in turn for five minutes. The group was mainly women – two thirds of practitioners are according to the CIPR’s State of the PR profession survey –  and, when I asked which sector they were thinking of going into, a high proportion said: “fashion PR”. As far as I can remember, not one mentioned any kind of public sector PR.

I’ve pondered for a long time about why this might be.  When you’re in local government, you realise just how fast-paced and varied public relations is. No day is the same as the next. The media want to and will engage with you. You’re dealing with a range of services, specialists and communities. Politics – local and national – is fascinating. You can help make a real difference to people’s lives. There are some remarkable things going on, especially with digital, and it’s a sector where people want to share and do.

I know that local government PR isn’t all rosy, that the nature of some of our services mean that when things go wrong they go seriously and life-threateningly wrong. That you generally have a budget of nil to work with and need to counter general negativity towards councils; but I do believe that the pros outweigh the cons.

If I know this, and others in similar jobs know it too, why didn’t these students know? Why hadn’t we told them? Why did their eyes invariably glaze over when I told them where I worked?

I can take a stab that plenty of 18-21 year olds probably aren’t that engaged with councils and neither know nor care what we do – I know I didn’t . Perhaps we’re guilty of not offering enough entry-level positions like Solihull Council’s graduate internship. If we gave more people their first break, we might be more visible on career radar.

And while I understand that fashion PR probably sounds a lot more glamorous than working at a town hall – where it’s more brew than Bolly – it seemed a crying shame that these students as a whole were missing the vast potential of exciting jobs they could be taking on. Perhaps our branch of PR needs some PR.

Photo: SewingMachine-0281 by University of Derby Teaching & Learning via Flickr

Connecting with councils

Statue of a girl holding her hands to her earsThis was the first of three topics at #Brewcamp on 6 October, led by Nicky Getgood – @getgood plus Getgood Guide and Digbeth is Good

Nicky told us about her work with the Digbeth Residents’ Association and the frustrations involved in trying to engage with her local council. Lessons were:

  • local groups want a relationship with their council
  • groups should be included in big consultation projects, not left to find out about events and information by accident
  • Plain English information is vital if you want good feedback
  • if you advertise an event, make sure it goes ahead or the cancellation is well publicised – one roadshow event didn’t go ahead due to a photoshoot being scheduled instead. Local people didn’t know, went along and felt stood-up
  • press offices can’t afford to ignore bloggers and local interest groups – after being fobbed off a number of times, Nicky resorted to an FOI request. Bloggers have niche and often important audiences, engage with them
  • Councillors should reply to emails – in one case, of three councillors being contacted only one replied and that was to forward the email to a council officer. Who didn’t reply
  • Councils should develop ways for local groups to access funding, signposting and support for grassroots ideas and projects – frustrating for people to be constantly knocked-back
  • when community posts are deleted or left unfilled, groups who have worked with the officers in those posts need to be informed and given new contacts where possible.

In contrast, the Association’s relationship with the Police is good. Representatives tend to go to meetings and lines of communication are open. Shows it can be done.

Chat after Nicky’s talk centred on positive ways that local groups can try to engage with their Council. Requesting a meeting with the Mayor/Chairman, approaching officers and Councillors through different channels and doing everything with a positive attitude were all cited.

Creative commons: What’s on your mind? by Carol VanHook on Flickr

Say cheese, Councillor

Black and white portrait of Wilhelm SiemensIf a picture’s worth a thousand words, what does the average councillor photo gallery tell us? Mainly that many Councils haven’t put enough thought into them.

Search some local council websites for councillor information and you come across a right rogues’ gallery. In the worst cases, photos show a range of different backgrounds, are taken from unflattering angles or haven’t been updated in years.

If this is ringing a bell, you’re missing a trick. Yes, it’s a big job, but it’s all about presenting your Council and its Members in a professional and consistent way.

How to go from ghastly to great:

– use a professional photographer? Ask them to cut you a deal – you may need to hold a number of photo sessions. You won’t get all Councillors together at the same time

– go in-house? Our excellent graphics team also acts as council photographers, using a digital SLR camera. They also take great photos for our website, residents’ magazine and other publications. If your council doesn’t do this, could it?

– ditch the school photo background – use depth of field to keep your subject in focus but blur the background. Makes for a more interesting picture

– choose one spot for photos to be taken – it needs to be uncluttered, clean, always available and preferably flooded with natural light. We take photos of our councillors in a common area of our offices. Once chosen, stick to it – consistency is key

– work with democratic services to choose suitable dates for photo shoots – I’ve often held them before and after Council and other major committee meetings. Ask the Chair to give a reminder announcement at the meeting

– make sure Councillors have fair warning when photos will be taken so that they can dress up, shave, have their hair cut etc. Don’t hold surprise shoots. They won’t thank you for it

– include a photocall as part of new councillor inductions – again, making sure they know it’s going to happen

– avoid up-against-the-wall syndrome by sitting subjects down. We sit our councillors side on to the photographer, turning their head to look into the camera. Once again, consistency is key

– always be at each shoot to tweak things if necessary – my bugbear is taking off security passes

– take some smiling and some serious shots. If you’re releasing shots to the press, and a serious story breaks, only having photos of your leader or portfolio holder beaming away is less than ideal

– upload new photos to your website asap and make the whole gallery available to all services on your shared drive – saves you constantly emailing and means everyone has access to the most up to date shots

– update regularly – councillors change over time and new councillors are elected. We update annually or as necessary if a by-election is held. This also means that councillors are used to photo shoots being part of Council routine

– give local media access to the photos. In the past I’ve burned discs and sent them to news teams, but social media has opened up new opportunities. Many councils now have Flickr Pro accounts and The City of York has uploaded their Councillor photos as part of their photostream.

If your Councillor gallery says a thousand words, make sure they’re saying what you want people to hear.

Creative Commons: Portrait of Wilhelm Siemens by Smithsonian Institute on Flickr