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To Sue, or Not to Sue: Defamation, Slander and Libel 301 – Costs versus Benefits

Defamation from a PR Point of View


There are clearly times when a public figure should consider filing a lawsuit for defamation of character.

Before taking this step, you have to weight the costs versus the benefits not from alegal point of view, but from a PR perspective.

Most cases that actually hit the courts are filed by private citizens. There are reasons for that.

Private citizens have a much lower bar to hurdle. They have to prove that the statement was factually wrong, that it was published, that it referred to them and a damaged their reputation -- and that somebody is responsible for it. That they were negligent.

As a public figure -- or a public relations professional -- you're not dealing with a private citizen. Public figures have to weight the costs versus the benefits, not only from a legal and a financial angle, but in terms of public perception and reputation.

Public Figures Must Weight PR Costs vs PR Benefits

Public figures have to prove actual malice, that whoever published an incorrect statement -- or a blatant lie -- not only did it, but did so with reckless disregard for the truth.

That is a high hurdle.

What public figures of all types need to realize, though, is that even in clear-cut cases where they should win -- and could win -- it's not always smart from a PR perspective to file a lawsuit.


Three reasons:

1) Do you really want this information repeated for months, or years?

A false story might get attention for a few days or weeks.

A libel lawsuit could drag out for months -- or years. If you go to court, other media outlets who wouldn't think of reprinting or repeating the original false statement now will cover the story and repeat the charge. Can you sue them, too?  No. Because they can report on court proceedings and filings without fear of a libel suit.

It's often smarter, from a PR standpoint, to let a story die than give it new life.

2) Depositions, cross-examinations and new surprises

Sure, it might feel good to put a bad reporter on the spot, to have your attorney grill him in a deposition or put her on the stand for a long cross-examination of how sloppy they were with the facts, or how they emailed a friend to say, "Who cares if it's true?"

Except the defense gets to do the same to an alleged victim of defamation. They get to depose you, sometimes for days.

Defense attorneys can keep you on the witness stand. They'll also likely hire investigators to put you under the microscope. Got anything you don't want made public? Anything you'd like to keep private? They might not only find it, but ask you about it in open court, and you better believe all the reporters and cable shows covering the trial will report any scoops about interesting things on your tax returns, nannies who aren't citizens and anything else juicy.

3) Hollow victory

Let's say everything goes your way. The media outlet who defamed you has no real defense. You cruise through court and win.

Even then, it might  be a hollow victory.

The money you receive may not amount to much. Attorney fees are steep. And now the precedent has been set. Once you start filing lawsuits like this, it's hard to stop protecting your turf when somebody else crosses that same line. You may wind up fronting a lot of money --a trial can easily cost five figures, if not six -- for libel cases that you don't win.

When the Benefits Outweigh the Costs

Back when Tom Cruise was married to Nicole Kidman, a British tabloid printed things that were pretty terrible. There's no point in repeating them. Cruise and Kidman sued, and British law makes libel suits much easier to win than in America.

Cruise and Kidman won the case.

BBC reports conflicting accounts of how much they actually won, though. BBC said the figure might be in excess of 100,000 British pounds plus 150,000 pounds in attorney fees -- but BBC also quoted a tabloid spokesperson who said those figures were exaggerated, that Cruise and Kidman got far less.

For average people, that might be a lot of money. For two of Hollywood's highest-paid actors, people making tens of millions of dollars per movie, it's nothing. That's like you and me buying a mocha.

Despite the dollar amount, I think the Cruise case points to reasons when filing a lawsuit for defamation does make sense. He and Kidman were right to sue, because they needed to stamp out the flood of stories like this.

There are two main reasons, from a PR perspective, to pursue defamation lawsuits.

•    To stop a media outlet or individual from a pattern of defamation
•    To stop a relentless series of defamatory stories from multiple media outlets

Just as lawsuits are no fun for alleged victims of defamation, they aren't a joy for media outlets and reporters.

Cruise and other public figures have taken a hard line at times, and rightly so. You don't want let the media declare open season on your reputation. The media tends to pile on, and to try to out-scoop each other.

There are times when you need to stop that ball before it gets rolling.

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