By MARK PEARSON
I have just completed a legal chapter for a public relations text edited by colleague Jane Johnston. In researching the chapter I came across several Australian cases where PR practitioners had found themselves in legal tangles. Here is a taste of them, but you’ll have to wait for Jane’s new book to get more detail!
According to the Australasian Legal Information Institute (www.austlii.edu.au), the term ‘public relations’ has only been spoken 10 times in High Court judgments, with none of the cases having public relations as a key factor in the decision-making. The mentions did, however, give some indication of the way our leading justices viewed the profession and some hints of the legalities of PR. For example, the 2004 case of Zhu v Treasurer of NSW  218 CLR 530 involved a dispute between the Sydney Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (SOCOG) in 2000 and a sub-contractor who had been licensed to market an “Olympics Club” package to residents of China. ‘Public relations’ formed part of the intellectual property he was licensed to use, which included “letterheads, stationery, display materials and other advertising, promotional and public relations materials approved by SOCOG to promote the Olympic Club” (para 59). The case establishes both contract law and intellectual property law as important to the role of PR professionals.
In Sankey v Whitlam (1978) 142 CLR 1, the High Court identified the importance of keeping secrets and confidentiality in government media relations. Acting Chief Justice Gibbs quoted an earlier British case where Chief Justice Lord Widgery had acknowledged the practice of ‘leaking’ as a PR tool: “To leak a Cabinet decision a day or so before it is officially announced is an accepted exercise in public relations, but to identify the Ministers who voted one way or another is objectionable.”(para 41).
The term ‘public relations’ has been used much more frequently in other courts and tribunals, with Austlii returning 1387 mentions of the term across all its case law databases. It was used in a host of contexts, including defamation, confidentiality, industrial relations, PR advice as lawyer-client privilege and whether public relations expenses could be claimed as part of a damages claim.
Here is a sampler:
Words spoken at a media conference in Adelaide were at the centre of a defamation action in 2012. A Hindley Street nightclub owner sued a neighbouring travel agency operator over a statement she had uttered almost two years earlier in the midst of a media conference he had called to announce an initiative to increase public safety and reduce violence in the central Adelaide precinct. He alleged the travel agency owner had announced loudly to the media gathered at the conference that he – the nightclub owner – was responsible for all the violence in Hindley Street. After hearing from several witnesses (including the nightclub’s public relations consultant) the District Court judge found for the defendant. He said it was more likely the interjector had not made such a blatant defamatory allegation against the nightclub owner and, even if she had, he would only have awarded $7500 in damages. There was no evidence of any actual recording of the words she had spoken despite numerous media representatives being present at the time: Tropeano v. Karidis  SADC 29.
In a Western Australian case in 2006, the consultancy Professional Public Relations (PPR) was ordered to provide all records they had about a DVD recording criticising a proposed brickworks which the director of a building materials company claimed made defamatory statements about him and his company. He suspected a rival building materials company – a client of PPR – was behind the production, and wanted this confirmed so that he could commence legal action: Bgc (Australia) Pty Ltd v Professional Public Relations Pty Ltd & Anor  WASC 175.
The most famous sub judice breach in a PR context came in 1987 when former NSW Premier Neville Wran called a media conference where he stated that he believed his friend – High Court Justice Lionel Murphy – was innocent of serious charges he was facing. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published the comments under the heading ‘Murphy innocent—Wran. Court orders retrial’. Both Wran and the Daily Telegraph were convicted of contempt, with Wran fined $25,000 and the newspaper $200,000: Director of Public Prosecutions (Cth) v. Wran (1987) 7 NSWLR 616.
Nine Network’s A Current Affair program had to pay $25,000 in damages to a property owner in 2002 after they had been invited by the Environment Protection Authority to accompany them when raiding his property for suspected environmental offences. The crew had cameras rolling as they entered the property and confronted the owner. The court held there was an implied licence for journalists to enter the land to request permission to film, but not to film without permission. The court also warned public authorities not to invite journalists on such raids, known as ‘ride-alongs’: TCN Channel Nine Pty Ltd v. Anning  NSWCA 82.
A West Australian District Court case involved a consultant to a South African mining company considering buyouts or mergers with other mining companies. The dispute surrounded a “partly written, partly oral and partly implied” agreement to provide “public relations, lobbying, consulting, networking, facilitating and co-ordinating” services: Newshore Nominees Pty Ltd as trustee for the Commercial and Equities Trust v. Durvan Roodepoort Deep, Limited  WADC 57. The problem was that very little was detailed in the agreement, forcing the judge to look at previous work done by the consultant and to come to an estimate of the number of hours he had worked and their value on this occasion. He accepted that an agreement had been reached, and concluded that $250 per hour was a reasonable sum for the services provided, but could not accept that the consultant had worked 14 hour days for 64 days. Instead, he awarded him $830 per day for eight weeks, totalling $33,200 plus expenses.
The public relations consultancy Essential Media Communications used Victorian consumer law to win a Supreme Court injunction to stop another PR firm – EMC2 – from using that abbreviation of their name. They claimed it could ‘mislead and deceive’ their clients, some of whom knew them by that acronym. The court also accepted Essential Media Communications’ argument that EMC2 might have been ‘passing off’ their business as that of the plaintiff: Essential Media Communications Pty Ltd v EMC2 & Partners  VSC 554. The Federal Court issued an injunction in similar circumstances in an earlier case to stop a public relations company using the name “Weston”, when an existing consultancy was already operating under that name: Re Weston Communications Pty Ltd v Fortune Communications Holdings Limited and the Weston Company Limited  FCA 426.
© Mark Pearson 2013
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.