Libel, slander & defamation: What’s the difference and why should PR pros care?

This article is originally published on the blog of Communiqué PR, EloQ’s fellow member in the Public Relations Network (PRN). 

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s recent civil trial has received a slew of media attention, bringing defamation into the spotlight. But what is defamation? And why would a public relations practitioner need a comprehensive understanding of defamatory actions to be a successful communicator?

This blog post will discuss defamation, how to identify it and why public relations professionals need to be aware of it.

What is Defamation?

According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (LII), defamation is “a statement that injures a third party’s reputation.” Defamation takes two forms: libel and slander.

Slander vs. Libel

  • Slander – a spoken defamatory statement (e.g., telling HR that a coworker is stealing from the company, when no such thing has occurred)
  • Libel – a written defamatory statement (e.g., Amber Heard’s Washington Post article about Johnny Depp’s alleged abuse)

What Makes a Statement Defamatory?

For someone to prove defamation, according to LII, they must demonstrate four things:

  1. A false statement has been made about someone, under the guise that it is fact.
  2. The false statement was published or communicated to a third party.
  3. The person who made the false statement is liable for negligence. (Public figures must go a step further and prove statements were made with “actual malice.”)
  4. The false statement harmed its subject. (Damages can include loss of earnings/capital, pain and suffering, personal humiliation and decreased standing in the community.)

Are Opinions Defamation?

No, but it is a fine line. Opinions are not defamatory – people are allowed to express feelings about individuals or organizations, no matter how unfriendly.

Let’s use McDonald’s as an example. Someone could say, “McDonald’s McNuggets don’t taste good.” Taste is subjective, so this opinion is not defamatory. However, if someone writes an article that says, “McDonald’s doesn’t use real chicken in its McNuggets,” that is considered defamation, specifically libel. For all intents and purposes, McDonald’s does use real chicken; therefore the second statement is false and could cause financial and reputational harm to the organization.

A good rule of thumb is “feelings are not facts.” If what you say is a feeling about someone or something, then it is an opinion. If you make a statement of fact that is untrue, then you are committing defamation.

Can a Business Sue for Defamation?

Yes. According to Minc Law, “Although a company or corporation is not considered to have a reputation in the sense that an individual does, statements that would impact the public’s view of a company’s financial soundness or managerial integrity are generally considered defamatory to a company’s business reputation.”

A business, however, does not experience defamation in the same way as an individual. The most common instance of defamation against a business is trade libel – false statements about a company’s products or services.

Why do PR Pros Need to Understand Defamation?

Public relations professionals are responsible for the reputation of their clients, whether it be an individual or a corporation. If a client suffers an instance of defamation, communicators need to know how to react. While lawyers will respond directly, the PR team needs to develop strategies to respond to false statements. These could be in the form of a tweet, blog post, press conference, or an op-ed in a paper. If there is significant reputational damage, PR pros will be in charge of bolstering a client’s reputation.

Most PR pros will not experience a defamation case – high-profile instances of libel and slander are uncommon. However, it is important to understand defamation in order to be proactive and prepared. If you carry an umbrella, it probably won’t rain.

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