High profile libel cases make great news stories. And our appetite for the details is strong, particularly when there’s a celebrity involved.

But defamation isn’t just a celebrity issue. It can affect anyone. A minor lapse in judgement can land you in hot water if somebody takes offence at your words or actions.

Perhaps an employee shares a joke about a client via email and it gets passed around. Or you re-tweet a piece of gossip to your Twitter followers and the subject of the gossip is offended.

As a business owner, you have your reputation to protect. And while professional indemnity insurance might provide cover for defamation, it’s no substitute for doing the right thing. So here we share some tips on how to protect your professional image.

Sticks and stones

But words will never hurt me, so the saying goes. But this isn’t always the case. A negative comment can harm a reputation and destroy a career, which is why defamation law exists.

There are two forms of defamation; libel and slander. If something offensive is spoken, then it’s described as slander. If it’s written down, broadcast, or shown in a film, it’s described as libel. And for a comment to be considered defamatory, it has to be communicated to somebody else. Even if that’s just one person.

So if you tell one of your suppliers that your client is an adulterer, or racist, even if you believe that to be true, that could be slanderous. If you make similar comments in an email or on Twitter, then the comment could be libellous.

Defamation law can’t generally prevent allegations from being published, but it can help to set the record straight after the event.

Since the introduction of the Defamation Act earlier this year, in order to successfully sue for defamation somebody will have to show that they’ve suffered serious harm. This is so that a fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and protection of reputation.

The art of discretion

Every small business owner knows that adopting a professional attitude when dealing with clients, is key to success.

And it’s important that you don’t let that professionalism slip, even when you’ve clocked off. Your employees need to know that too. There’s a fine line between a personal profile and a business profile and it pays to be discreet even when you’re emailing friends, or posting on Twitter to let off steam.

The internet and social media provide a low-cost way of marketing a business, which is great for any start-up or growing business, on a budget. But there are risks to using the internet for this purpose. In fact, Legal Publishers, Sweet & Maxwell, reported an increase in ‘new media’ defamation cases between 2008 and 2010.

Defamation Lawyer, Korieh Duodo, commented: “The rise of defamation cases linked to the internet is inevitable if internet users like bloggers or tweeters fail to put in place the same kind of pre-publication controls that traditional media uses.”

So it makes sense to have a clear policy in place for communication, whether that’s through email, when writing blogs, or using social media. And all staff should be trained and understand their responsibilities.

Protecting your business

Defamation claims can be costly to investigate. A lawyer will need to look at the context in which the comments were made, and establish your intent. Even if you’re found not to have fallen foul of the law, there could still be a hefty cost involved to prove it.

If your professional indemnity insurance provides cover for defamation then these costs will be met by your insurance company. They will also meet the costs of any damage payout too.

Below, we give some tips on how to protect your business when it comes to communication.

Tips

  • Avoid saying anything in an email or on social media that you wouldn’t want to see repeated on the front of a national newspaper or website.
  • It sounds obvious, but don’t make anything up about your clients or anyone else.
  • Even if you know that something is true, don’t say it if it’s likely to cause offence.
  • If you’re creating content, always check the facts.
  • Don’t just assume that because something has been written somewhere, it’s true.
  • Be careful about repeating allegations that you’ve heard or read. Even if you re-tweet a potentially defamatory Tweet, you risk being sued.
  • Have a clear social media policy in place and make sure all staff have been trained.


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