Review: Reputation Matters
About the author
Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.
Reputation Matters: How to Protect Your Professional Reputation
By Jonathan Coad
Bloomsbury Business, 2022, 288 pages
The CIPR asserts that ‘public relations is about reputation.’ That may be so, but it does not necessarily mean that reputation is all about public relations.
This book is written by a media lawyer, though the biography on the cover claims he’s also a PR professional. Elsewhere he names his role as ‘a PR lawyer,’ describing this as a ‘media poaching’ role in contrast to the ‘media gamekeeping’ role of an editorial lawyer.
Coad asserts in his introduction that ‘even among PR professionals there is a lack of knowledge of how the British media works and how it is regulated (to the limited extent that it is). Only when armed with that knowledge can PR professionals effectively influence editorial decisions that pose a threat to them or their clients.’
So his book is a guide to the media and to the tools available to those seeking to limit its destructive powers and is based on a crisis management seminar the author has delivered for over 25 years. He’s bemused that the approaches he recommends are neither followed by PR practitioners nor taught by PR academics, nor are they included in crisis comms textbooks.
‘The most valuable service that a PR professional can render to a client is to prevent a media crisis from happening at all, which should be the first aim of crisis PR.’ Jonathan Coad
He argues for a closer working relationship between PR advisers and media lawyers: ‘When a media crisis looms, the PR practitioner most likely to stave it off is a PR lawyer.’
He has some firm advice for those who assume the press acts with more probity following exposure of its worst practices in the 2011 Leveson Inquiry. ‘[This] failed to fix them because of the obstinate refusal of the press to accept its recommendations and the craven failure of the government to force the issue – a pattern that goes back some 70 years.’
The heart of the book covers key regulations and laws, how the media operates, avoiding a media crisis, what to do if a media crisis looms, dealing with a media crisis if it breaks and litigation PR.
So the focus is very much on crisis management, or more specifically media crisis management. Indeed, the author’s definition of crisis PR shows that he has the media in mind: ‘restraining the media from damaging reputation or invading privacy by the deployment of the full array of regulatory and legal tools available.’
Coad is a forceful commentator rather than a typical cautious lawyer: this makes the book a good read, and it would also explain why he’s frequently invited onto broadcast interviews.
Here’s what he has to say about IPSO, the supposedly independent press regulator.
‘IPSO was foisted on us in 2014 by Fleet Street, which because of its hubris and lack of regard for the truth has refused flatly to be independently regulated according to the moderate and reasonable recommendations of Lord Leveson… Fleet Street, which constantly demands full accountability from others, refuses point blank to be held accountable itself… IPSO’s true primary function is to ensure that the publications that it oversees remain free to mislead the public and trash human rights with the minimum possible interference… IPSO is the fourth incarnation of press self-regulation. All three predecessors failed, as was the intention of the press in creating them, as it was when creating IPSO.’
Broadcasters, meanwhile, are regulated by the Ofcom Code. ‘The editorial and ethical values espoused by the broadcast industry are significantly superior to those of the print press, which is why I always recommend people to place more trust in broadcast news than print journalism.’
Coad considers the risk tolerance of publishers. ‘As a media publisher, if you want your factual content to have bite, then you must be prepared to invest in some risk. Many smaller publishers/broadcasters have insufficient finances to allow them such a luxury. On the whole, book publishers are very risk averse.’
He soon provides an example of a high level of risk tolerance. ‘Associated Newspapers has both the immense financial resources and ego to allow it the luxury of fighting cases in which they are blindingly obviously in the wrong, as they were in the Duchess of Sussex privacy and copyright claims.’
And later: ‘We all know about the tragic suicide of my client Caroline Flack, driven to it by the tabloid press – which seems to be particularly brutal towards women; especially women of colour like Meghan Markle.’
Coad provides this personal insight into his righteous indignation about the ‘chaotic state of media regulation’. ‘As a devout Christian for whom truth holds a higher value than free speech, I am convinced that we do not need more information, we need better-quality information.’
The oft-repeated (and obviously self-serving) advice throughout the book is the need to enlist a PR lawyer to avert a media crisis. The media will use their own lawyers who are well versed in media law, so ‘do not send in an amateur to take on a professional.’ Nor will any lawyer do. ‘Do not be fobbed off with a solicitor who is just a litigator with some experience of media work – or worse still, just a litigator… Media work is a highly specialist legal practice, requiring deep knowledge of the regulation, applicable law and industry if it is to be done effectively… There are less than a dozen senior PR lawyers who really know what they are doing. Make sure you hire one of them.’
Coad also recommends having access to an experienced crisis PR expert and he provides a checklist to help you find your expert (‘if crisis PR is merely part of their practice then you should avoid them’) as well as your PR lawyer.
Public relations practitioners should note his advice over the appropriateness of saying ‘sorry’ in a media statement (legal advice has often differed from public relations advice on this point).
‘So long as you chose [sic] your words carefully in the UK you can say sorry without admitting liability. The situation is different in America where civil actions are still largely tried by juries. There, a public statement of contrition could be flourished by a claimant lawyer as an admission of liability. There is no such risk here.’
It’s advice many in public relations will find useful. But there’s a different book that everyone needs: one advising on crisis management and the law in relation to digital and social media. Coad has just one page devoted to social media. The anomalous status of online media is confirmed when Coad points out that ‘news websites such as Sky and the BBC are regulated neither by Ofcom or either of the print regulators – a lacuna which needs to be addressed.’