As I pursue my dual degree in Public Relations and Business Administration, I am required to take a business law class. At first, I did not know what to expect. I only knew 2 things about law: 1) My sister was in law school. 2) Public Relations and law have a close-knit relationship because often public relations professionals and lawyers cross paths. However, I have been pleasantly surprised about how much I have enjoyed the class, and I feel that it will greatly enhance my future in public relations by being aware of legal issues.
PR professionals believe that they need to maintain good relations with lawyers in order to seek their professional help and advice. Though some lawyers do not appreciate PR professionals? lack of knowledge about the law, they do respect their ability to act in a crisis. However, when promoting a product or cause, employees in PR may be unaware of certain laws. Additionally, ethics greatly comes into play when one is immersed in the field of Public Relations. For example, if an employer tells you to write on a blog promoting the product or cause that you work for, do you do it? If you report the wrong information and discover it later, do you change it, even if that means hurting a client? The Public Relations Society of America has a Code of Ethics (http://www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/preamble_en.html) to maintain their high ethical standards, but at times, professionals may ignore this document and run into trouble. Additionally, many PR professionals do not know much about contracts, libel, slander, malpractice, or intellectual property. That is where the relationship with lawyers may come in handy.
For example, a potential client approaches you and says he is starting a business to produce cookies and other baked goods. He has a great recipe, but he needs the help of a professional to get his name out. You agree to the terms and sign a contract. However, a few weeks later you find out that he stole the recipe from Mrs. Fields and can no longer have his business. In the meantime, you passed over another client to take him on. Are you entitled to any damages?
In another case, you may find yourself ordering supplies to help your PR business. You agree with a friend who sells office supplies that he will give you supplies on the 1st of every month. You do not sign a contract ? after all, he is your friend! You owe him $450 every month. However, after three months of this business deal, he stops selling you the products, and you are now forced to pay $1000 for the same amount of supplies from another retailer. Are you entitled to any damages? (I actually just learned yesterday in my class that all contracts for the sale of goods that are over $500 must be in writing).
In another situation, your client is a restaurant and is quoted in a newspaper saying that its competitor not only does not clean the facility before cooking but uses various chemicals that are unhealthy without telling its customers. However, your client knows this information is not true and says it anyway. You think it is a crisis communication situation but really the competitor is planning its lawsuit against the restaurant, YOUR client!
These issues are three of many that PR professionals may not have much prior knowledge or experience with. Many law issues may seem like situations that can just be handled by contacting the press and using crisis communications strategies, but in fact, they have the potential to turn into lawsuits if not handled properly. The importance of communication and networking opportunities between lawyers and public relations professionals is just as important, if not more, than communication and networking between the media and public relations professionals. A PR professional could easily lose his or her good reputation due to the unfortunate case of a law-breaking client. Thank goodness for this law class!