Do You Know Your Rights? Public Relations and the Law


Yes, I also used to have nightmares about lawyers. But don’t worry, they’re a friendly bunch, especially if you work agency-side.

The law! These are the two words that’ll send most PR practitioners running into the distance and over the horizon. Public relations practitioners aren’t always savvy about their legal rights, or what local legislation means for how they (or their clients) operate.

It was a refreshing change to see this issue tackled at this year’s PR Pressure conference. Organized by Secret PR and now held for a second year, the event included a panel of legal minds who were willing to tackle everything from intellectual property (including pitches), to social media and influencers and chasing debts.

I’m going to summarize some of the key points made by the speakers – Cedar White Bradley Group’s Fatema Fathnezad, Norton Rose Fulbright’s Dino Wilkinson, Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, Lincoln Legal Consultants’ Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou from – on a number of areas which are, or should be, of concern to communicators.

Getting Your Contract Right

As Fiona Robertson clearly pointed out, much of what goes wrong legally starts with the contract. Be as precise as possible in terms of deliverables, avoid jargon, and ensure that you understand what recourse you have to legal help in the jurisdiction under which the contract is applicable. You’ll end up spending much less on a good contract than on any legal dispute (up to a tenth according to Robertson), so ensure that the contract is watertight and clear to all parties.

Who owns the Intellectual Property (and pitches)

We work in a content industry, and yet so little of what we do with content is understood within a legal framework. For example, do you ask for consent from those people that your photographer is taking pictures of? Are you clear on when and where content which you have purchased usage rights for can be used? And what happens when your content is misused, such as after a pitch?

Fatema Fathnezad suggested that agencies trademark their logo and services, and include these trademarks on all materials. In addition, before and after a pitch agencies need to communicate in writing that the material being presented is under copyright and that as such the execution of these concepts cannot be undertaken without the agency’s permission and compensation being paid. Remember that you cannot legally own an idea, but you can copyright and protect the execution of that idea.

Social Media and Influencers

This one may be common sense, but the first thing that agencies and clients need to bear in mind is that they need to manage administration rights of social media accounts.

Secondly, when it comes to influencers any paid content must be considered as advertising. Dino Wilkinson pointed out that many influencers in our region are reluctant to clarify to the public when content is paid for, but as per the advertising laws there are rules which must be followed by both brands and influencers (you can see them here).

Like many other jurisdictions around the world, there’s not as much legislation around influencers as they should be (for example, do they need to have a business license to operate). Both Dino and Fiona spoke of the need for agencies to have contracts in place with influencers, and for there to be background checks on the influencer – remember that these people will be representing your brand or your client, and so the proper due diligence should be done.

Chasing Payments/Debts

Some of the most interesting comments were made by Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou on the issue of debts. Some of the inputs were logical – chase on payments before they’re due and reschedule payment terms if the client has issues paying. If non-payment occurs, look to resolve the situation directly but amicably. And get a lawyer involved – up to a quarter of cases are settled by a letter from a lawyer. There are dispute mechanisms available in the country, such as the DIFC Small Claims Tribunal, but these mechanisms will cost you time and money, so beware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Yachou suggested two novel agency approaches to clients – firstly, do a background risk assessment, so that you understand the history of payments both for a particular industry and a specific client. Secondly, there are insurers who will underwrite agency billing; if a client doesn’t pay, the insurer will make up the shortfall. We’re talking about billing in the millions of Dirhams here, so it’s not going to help small agencies, but it is a thought for those medium and larger sized agencies who want to hedge their risks.

Thank you to Secret PR

I want to say a big thank you to Sarah Mohamed and her Secret PR team for arranging this event, which is free to attend and which does tackle the big issues that the industry faces (other topics included the Arabic language and digital). Sarah and the team put a great amount of effort in to make this work, and it’s good to see a group of people take the initiative to educate others. Thank you Sarah!


Sarah Mohamed is the head of Secret PR and the dynamo behind the PR Pressure event (image source: Campaign Middle East)

Guest Post – Failing at the basics


The anonymous editor really isn’t impressed by the lack of communication skills on show on the region’s agency side

Here’s a guest post for you, from our anonymous editor who has some advice for us public relations professionals in the region. Enjoy the read!

Here’s a question for you PR practitioners – what would your client think if a journalist told them ‘I emailed your agency with a request two weeks ago but I didn’t get any reply from them’?

The client wouldn’t be impressed, right?

So why, as a journalist, am I faced over and over again, with deafening silence when I contact so many different agencies? In the past six months, I’ve had numerous occasions where I have sent a request to an agency, and gotten absolutely no reply whatsoever. The same agencies are quite capable of making constant phone calls to my mobile when they want something, but apparently seem to think it’s OK to not even acknowledge an email sent ‘proactively’ by a journalist.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a reply, even if its just saying – ‘we got your email and our team will be in touch’. I don’t know whether you are waiting for the client to respond, but at least telling me you are working on it, or that the client is away, lets me know, so I can find another source or another interview subject if you aren’t able to reply by my deadline.

Sometimes an email may go to the wrong practice team or to someone who is on holiday. But everyone should know that if they are the wrong person, they need to pass the email along to the right person. An ‘out of office’ message is a simple courtesy. Even if you are not working with that client any more, not replying is bad for any future relationship with that reporter.

At the end of the day, your client is paying you to field media enquiries – I don’t expect 24-7 service (even if many clients might seem to believe they own every hour of your day!) – but your client has a right to expect communications from media during office hours are answered asap. Not ‘I was in meetings all week’ or some other excuse…

Failing to respond to an email from a ‘customer’ is a basic failing in business practice, for any business. When the business is PR and you are selling the strength of your ‘relationships’ with the media, it’s just plain stupid.

The Agency-Client Conundrum: How to get the best out of your public relations agency

Working with clients in the region can sometimes be a challenge for agencies. We need to change this (image source: Shamley Productions)

Working with clients in the region can sometimes be a challenge for agencies for a variety of reasons. We need to change this (image source: Shamley Productions)

The one issue I hear about again and again from my friends on the agency side is the difficulty of working with clients. The most common retort is that clients don’t understand how to work with agencies. I’ve even seen agency-side colleagues praising their clients on LinkedIn for being open enough to share information with them, which for me is pretty much the basis of any agency-client relationship.

The current state of affairs between clients and public relations agencies needs to be changed. My friends and colleagues on the client side in particular need to change how they engage with their agencies; we need to understand that shouting, raising our voice, berating agency employees or simply demanding all of their time isn’t the basis for a healthy, long-term relationship that will benefit the client.

So, how do we change this? Here’s a couple of pointers:

  • Agencies are Consultants – For me, my agency team are consultants. They’re not there to be transactional, to give me a press release and then send it out. They’re there to advise me on the external environment, to provide counsel on opportunities and risks, and to support me in my job. More of us need to think consultants rather than simply implementers of basic tasks (and if you’re an agency which lives on press release writing and distribution, you also need to step up your game.
  • Inform them – I’m always amazed by how little agencies know about their clients. And it’s often not their fault. Clients need to give as much information to their agencies as possible. Agency teams are an extension of the client, and they’re representing the client with external stakeholders. Agency teams should be meeting regularly with clients, they should be give access to internal materials, and they should be made to feel that they are a natural extension of the client.
  • Learn how agencies operate – Far too few people on the client side have worked either as media or on the agency side. If client leads don’t have this experience, they need to develop an understanding of how agencies work. This means spending time with the agency teams, listening and observing how they operate. This will help in promoting a better understanding of agencies, which clients can then take back into their own operations.

These three pointers are pretty simple. It’s up to clients to put in the effort, to learn about their agencies and respect the value that agencies can bring when they are empowered by clients. As a client, if you’re not happy with your agency then change agencies. If you’re changing agencies regularly, maybe the problem isn’t on the agency side.

If you’re on either the agency or client side, do let me know your thoughts on the above. What have I missed, and what would you change or add to the above? As always, I’d love to hear from you.