Communications rules: The negative or dangerous story

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internet scam imageI goofed last night by inadvertently copying an internal email to two colleagues about an  inquiry earlier in the evening from an individual involved in a complex and serious controversy (and facing serious criminal charges).

The publicly-known person had used our inbound advertising inquiry form to ask for advertising rates. He also requested a reference for a freelance writer. My reaction:  In an email to our contract writer and the publication’s advertising representative, I told both of them to be cautious in dealing with the individual, and I set out the guidelines for the sort of material we could publish.

I wrote:

We should not grant credit — he will need to pay for his advertising before delivery (if he doesn’t have the money to pay his lawyers, will he have the money to pay for the ads?)

Also, we cannot run an “advertorial” feature that would not clearly indicate that it has been sponsored/paid and clearly if he is engaging in anything that might appear libelous or otherwise dangerous we will have to review very carefully before publishing.  It is okay for him to run an advocacy ad and for us to write a story describing his cause/case.

Unfortunately, this email also landed — late last night — in the mailbox of the person who had made the original inquiry. He answered me, with an email that I will not excerpt from nor publish here (as I don’t have his permission), but, not surprisingly, he wasn’t too happy with my answer.

I then reviewed my correspondence and breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t broken two of my most important rules, ones which you may wish to consider in your own business and correspondence.  They are:

  1. Never publish or speak in any public forum in a manner that can negatively identify an individual or business; and
  2. Never write an email you would not want to be seen in public and/or used in legal action.

These rules have foundation in libel law, which publishers need to understand more than contractors (thankfully, we don’t need to worry too much about construction liens in our own business, however.) Publishers can be sued for defamation if we publish false statements about individuals or organizations that cause harm to them. There is an absolute and successful defence — the truth. So if we really have negative information about someone and can document it, we would win in court. Trouble is, if things go to trial, the legal fees could amount to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This means publishers need specialized libel insurance and highly skilled specialized lawyers if they wish to handle really controversial stories where names are named. I have neither. The simplest solution is not to touch these hot potatoes. We can still cover controversial and sensitive issues, with care, but I decided some years ago that the story about the individual who emailed me last night would be over the line in terms of publishing safety. In any case, his story has been well-covered in other media with the money for lawyers.

The second rule, about not putting words in email that you cannot live with afterwords, has a more general application. Emails can be saved, either by the other side or on servers subject to subpoena (or I suppose, grabbing by the ever-watching national security services in Canada or the U.S.) Seemingly private correspondence can become public and haunt you years after you wrote the note in haste.

In a follow-up email, I said I would be happy to speak with the public figure on the phone (yes, phones can be tapped, but that is a much more difficult process) and explained my general concern about libelous content and why we had not covered his story previously. I will make it clear that we would have no trouble, subject to libel limits, for us to  follow this observation: “It is okay for him to run an advocacy ad and for us to write a story describing his cause/case.”

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