Do You Know Your Rights? Public Relations and the Law

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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 InDate.info – 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!

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

The dangers of speaking your mind online – lessons from the Middle East

Kuwaiti graphic designer Mohammed Sharaf @MohammadRSharaf created the following image to support Nasser Abdul during his trial for tweeting offensive material

The internet is full of misconceptions. I often feel that most people think that the world wide web is a place where they can go to say anything, both positive and (most often) negative. The past 18 months and pending legislation should make anyone and everyone think twice about the above. Cases in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait have cast aside the notion that cyberspace is a domain where anything and everything goes.

A number of trials and guilty verdicts both underline the importance of tempering what people say online as well as underscore what authorities do and do not deem as illegal. The first high-profile legal proceedings took place in Kuwait when in June of last year a Kuwaiti national was charged with slandering Bahrain’s royal family and a religious group.

Despite claiming that his Twitter account was hacked Nasser Abdul was found guilty and sentenced to three months in jail which he had already served by the time his sentence was pronounced. There have been other cases in Kuwait, including the prosecution and sentencing of Mubarak Al-Bathali to six years in jail (this was commuted to six months) for Tweets attacking certain religious groups.

The most famous case of jailing for tweeting is that of Hamza Kashgari, who published three tweets about an imaginary meeting between himself and the Prophet Mohammed. His comments drew an instant reaction from Saudis online; in the hours that followed over 30,000 tweets regarding Kashgari were published online. Kashgari was accused of apostasy and fled to Malaysia. He was deported back to Saudi Arabia and jailed. Kashgari is still in detention, despite pleas by his family for his release and his apology for his actions (the basic story and roundup can be read here on Wikipedia).

Bahrain’s authorities have also taken to court individuals for publishing their thoughts in online public forums. The most famous and most recent case is that of activist Nabeel Rajab who tweeted about the Prime Minister’s visit to Muharraq in June and was accused of publicly insulting Muharraq’s residents for their support of Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. According to Bahrain’s prosecutor Rajab had claimed that Muharraq’s residents had only welcomed the Prime Minister during a visit because he had offered them subsidies.

Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said his acquittal on defamation charges “was due to the judge’s uncertainty regarding the evidence submitted to support the lawsuit”. Rajab, who has spent two months in jail while awaiting the outcome of this and another case, had been faced with possible charges before for his use of Twitter, in 2011, in what would have been the first such case in the Middle East.

Clearly the Arab Spring, which has led to regime change in three Middle East countries and is still being felt across the region, has sharpened the thinking of numerous governments across the region. According to media reports in June of this year, Bahrain is introducing legislation to curb misuse of social media.

I am still trying to fully understand the full implications of Bahrain’s proposed social media law, but I am assuming that this would cover and make an illegal offense the publishing of any comments online or through social media that would appear to contradict government policy or government statements. Kuwait is also leaning in this direction, as this editorial by Reuters makes clear.

What is clear is that the Middle East’s online community is becoming increasingly politicized. I’d argue that many people, frustrated with the lack of political debate in traditional media, are going online to voice their issues and concerns. The Dubai School of Government has estimated that there are 1.3 million active users on Twitter in the region.

Switching tack slightly, how will the increase in political discourse affect online communication efforts/campaigns? Will communication professionals and agencies steer completely away from anything that could be construed as political or biased to one community? And will we see more people using online aliases? While many governments would like to regulate online activity, how are they going to force users to reveal their true identities when using services that are based in Europe or the US?

Would we even see sites such as Facebook or Twitter blocked by governments in the region (this did happen in Egypt during January 2011 when the authorities tried to stop any and all access to social networking sites)? That’s the logical conclusion, but how would you do this when these sites have become part of people’s everyday lives? As always, there seem to be many more questions than answers when it comes to the Middle East. The freedom to voice one’s thoughts online are no exception.