If you were to look up the definition of a ‘publisher’ in the Oxford English Dictionary it will tell you (at least in my edition) that a publisher is someone who ‘produces copies of books, newspapers etc and distributes them to booksellers or members of the public’. The problem with this definition is it’s out of date. In this age of social media and online marketing, almost any business that uses the internet to promote its services can now be classed as a publisher of some sort.

As little as ten years ago – when publishing primarily involved hardcopy print – there were practical barriers to producing a publication and getting it circulated; not least the cost and the need for equipment, like printing presses. Now, anyone tweeting, blogging, posting or uploading to the internet is publishing, whether they realise it or not and they have the ability to publish whatever they like, whenever they like.

Power of the press
For freelancers and small businesses it’s first and foremost great news: it brings all the benefits of content marketing to businesses everywhere. But with the advantages comes a note of caution when it comes to the risk of defamation. How often in the news have you read of a well known individual or celebrity landing themselves in hot water by tweeting or even retweeting a piece of gossip about another individual? Sally Bercow’s tweet regarding Lord McAlpine, for example, cost her a High Court trial and damages. Even a non-celebrity making derogatory comments on Twitter about another person, or someone in the news, for example, can easily become a target for a libel action.

Defamation has become something that is easy to do. What do I mean by defamation? In simple terms, it’s saying something in print (libel) or verbally (slander) that can unfairly damage the reputation of an individual or a business. Criticise a competitor; that could be defamation. Say something unkind about an individual; that could be defamation. Comment on an employee on their Facebook page; that could be defamation.

Once it’s out there…
A case of trade libel, for example, brought about one of the biggest claims we’ve seen where one business insinuated that another was in trouble. The problem for many, however, is that it can sometimes be difficult to take down an ill-judged comment once it’s been published somewhere. Social media publishing is by its nature, instant. Delete a tweet but others may already have retweeted the comment. And while you can’t generally be held responsible for others republishing your content – although you could be liable if you encouraged another to spread it – the damage has already been done both reputationally and potentially financially from your initial post. It’s also worth considering who within your business has access to your social media accounts. There have been numerous examples of disgruntled employees taking revenge on their employer by using social media in a way that is damaging to the business. Some employees have also been caught out believing they were posting to their own social media account rather than a company account.

Publish and be…cautious
The rule is that just because it is easy to publish doesn’t mean that the publisher can be any less vigilant when it comes to defamation. Before you publish – in whatever form – take a moment to consider whether anything you’ve written is defamatory to an individual or a business. It’s better to be overly cautious than risk a legal action with all the accompanying costs and reputational damage. It was the Duke of Wellington who said ‘publish and be damned’; perhaps a more modern interpretation for the online age might read ‘publish but be cautious’.