There’s a Sheriff in Dodge City

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Social media can be a seductive environment. It can seem intimate, private, just you and a few friends chatting and joking. But the moment you go into writing, the same laws of libel apply that might apply to anything else you publish.

The High Court judgement in the Cairns v Modi case just a couple of days ago,  saw the happily anarchic world of Twitter brought suddenly face to face with harsh legal reality . Here former IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi was held to account for his Twitter post claiming that former New Zealand cricket star Chris Cairns had been barred from the IPL because of his “past record in match-fixing”.  The High Court found that Mr Modi had “singularly failed” to provide any reliable evidence against the cricketer, and slapped him with a £90,000 damages bill, and an even more eye-watering £400,000 in costs.

For many people, this will be a reassuring reminder that the world of social media is not the wild west.  Laws do prevail. There’s a sheriff in town. When a business faces a Twitter storm of rumour and allegation, there are a number of possible strategies to deploy, and one of these most certainly is the legal option. But that said, it’s never a good move to launch a legal assault to protect your reputation without very careful reputation management processes as part of your strategy.  That’s as true with social media as it is in the off-line world.

But the Cairns v Modi case should also set a few gentle alarm bells ringing for some businesses.  In the last year or two, as the commercial world has come to recognise the importance of social media, more and more companies have launched themselves onto Twitter and Facebook.  But as they have done so, a slightly odd characteristic has emerged.  Where most articles and public statements emerging from the organisation are subject to careful scrutiny and double-checking, very often social media activity is delegated to an individual, or a small group of individuals, who chatter and twitter away  in a state of happy and informal autonomy.  There may be few, if any, of the normal checks and safeguards that apply to the company’s other pronouncements.  And yet, the topics for social media debate are often the most contentious and sensitive of the all the issues the business might be facing.

Perhaps the simple message of Cairns v Modi is this:  Twitter and Facebook are part of the “real world”, and that means accountability and liability. The Law has come to Dodge City.

Terence Fane-Saunders

What Worked Yesterday

So it begins. Chelgate has joined the blogosphere.
I’m writing this on board Eurostar, after a quick visit to our Brussels office, where the mood seems more upbeat and assertive than I can remember for some time. Now that the Irish have fallen into line over the Lisbon Treaty, and indications are that the Czechs will do the same, it really seems that ratification will be more or less inevitable. And that, of course, poses a sticky problem for the Tories. What becomes of David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee” of a referendum?
I’d guess that the Tories will have to back-pedal on the pledge. Holding a referendum once the treaty is ratified would make very little sense. The horse will have bolted, the stable door will hang ajar.
Of course, in a real world of common sense and honest dealing, it should be possible for the Tories to adapt their position to the changed reality. If you promise a patient a life – saving operation, but they die before reaching the operating table, you’re hardly going to plough ahead with the surgery.
And this patient’s certainly dead. The debate is over. If the treaty is ratified, then the referendum would be little more than a pointless post mortem. The guarantee simply wouldn’t apply any more, in that real world of common sense and honest dealing.
But, of course, this is not the world of British politics . Chances are that if the Tories do attempt to re-cast their cast iron guarantee, angry fingers will be pointed across the floor of the House, cries of “turncoat” will fill the air (and perhaps not just from the Labour benches). If Gordon Brown is quick on his feet, he should be able to land a few painful blows below the Cameron beltline. Weak, naive, fickle and inconstant. It’s easy to imagine the epidemic of epithets.
But while none of this would be really justified, and of course responsible Opposition adjusts its policies in light of events, the Tories also have themselves to blame. A basic rule of issues management is that you never make promises you mightn’t be able to keep. Good intentions alone are not enough. The public, usually, doesn’t give a fig for your intentions. It’s what you do that counts. In this case, David Cameron not only made the promise, but he gilded it and preserved it in the golden language of the soundbite. “A cast iron guarantee”. A phrase like that was never going to slip gently into obscurity.
But the Tory team are pretty astute. I wouldn’t expect them to wait for the Czech ratification before they redefine their position. Nor would I expect them simply to announce a change of policy. They should probably devote the next few weeks to a vigorous assault on Labour, pointing out that ratification will kill the last chance for the British people to have their say; that it will deny the British people the chance of the referendum which every major party has promised them; that if the chance of a referendum dies, it is the Labour party that has killed it. Before they actually announce a change of position, they should be re-defining the landscape of the debate. They need to build common acceptance that ratification changes everything, that if the hoped of a referendum is to be denied to the British people, it is because Labour has killed it, not because the Tories have abandoned it.
If they do prepare the ground this way, then they should be able to float a new policy for post-ratification, without appearing to be performing a contorted u-turn. But if they leave it too late, or fail to shape the debate over the next few weeks, I would expect Labour to have a happy field day with David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee”.
It’s our 21st
It is actually 21 years this month since Chelgate opened for business. During that time, we have seen a revolution in our profession. The techniques, the resources, the very definition of our role have all changed beyond measure. Above all, the Internet has re-written the rules of good public relations and public affairs practice . I’ll be returning to these changes in later blogs. But perhaps what’s most important is not to look back, but to look ahead. The pace of change is accelerating, and new forces are reshaping the way that people interact with the world around them – with government, with business and with each other. Even months ago it would have been hard to forecast the impact of Twitter on public life. In just the last few days we have seen how the new phenomenon of the “Twitterstorm” had the power to tear the blindfold and gag off Trafigura’s watertight legal injunction on the Guardian. This must be stirring wild surmise in the hearts of lawyers and media relations professionals the world over. What barriers are safe? What can’t be done? At Chelgate, our task must be to ensure not just that we understand how to protect and promote our clients’ interests in this altered world. We must understand the changing possibilities for our business, looking ahead constantly, and never, for one instant, thinking that what worked yesterday will probably work just as well tomorrow.
The months and years ahead should be an exhilarating journey for our profession. Enjoy the ride with us. Stay in touch with the blog.
Terence Fane-Saunders
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