It’s been a frenzied week for the media, which has taken navel gazing to new levels over the spectacular failure of lawyers to protect Ryan Giggs’ privacy. They may have succeeded for a while in keeping their client’s name out of stories of his alleged affair. But, as pressure mounted and newspapers’ displeasure at the fact that it was open season on Twitter grew, it was only a matter of time before traditional media named him. By the time John Hemming used parliamentary privilege to publicly name Giggs, the story had turned from a fairly trivial one to an issue of constitutional significance and no amount of legal heavy-handedness was going to suppress it. When the Sunday Herald broke ranks last weekend and named Giggs, public appetite for the story was huge – and resulted in a record number of hits on its website, despite the fact that item only appeared in print.
Officials at South Tyneside Council may be equally aghast this morning at news of their legal attempts to unmask an anonymous tweeter who they say has made defamatory comments about the authority. They launched the case to track down a whistle-blower called ‘Mr Monkey’, who has made a raft of claims about councillors. The move is reported to have ‘cost council tax payers hundreds of thousands of pounds.’
The council has every right to protect itself against inaccurate claims that could damage its reputation. But I can’t help feel that, like the Giggs case, the publicity the legal action has generated will end up being a hell of a lot worse than that which the lawyers were seeking to deflect.
South Tyneside councillor @ahmedkhan1 made this point on Twitter this morning.
OWN GOAL! More free publicty for the blog South Tyneside Council and it's leader Cllr Iain Malcolm would love to silence.
— Ahmed Khan (@AhmedKhan01) May 29, 2011
I have no idea what PR advice was given in these cases. But both stories demonstrate that taking a purely legal approach to solving a PR problem may actually worsen the damage further down the line. I’m convinced that if Giggs had ‘come clean’ when the claims were first made against him and given a contrite interview to the red tops, we would not be talking about him now. He could also have saved himself a fortune in legal fees. Instead, online chatter and a frustrated media have combined with a tale of a footballer playing away from home to create one of the stories of the year. I’m sure that was not the result Giggs would have been looking for when he first took advice on the pros and cons of legal action.
Surely damage limitation rather than a ‘command and control’ approach to silencing bad news would have been a better option? PR people need to be making this argument when their organisations’ reputations come under threat.
Responding to these issues is not a job that should be left to lawyers alone.