Free speech ignored when lawyers manage reputation

Matt Wardman provides a clear summary of the actions of  Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek billionaire who is seeking to purchase Arsenal football club, in responding to criticism by getting the lawyers to close down websites and blogs.

The law firm, Schillings, employed by Mr Usmanov claims on its website to be:

The leading law firm protecting the reputations of high-profile individuals, corporates and brands.

This presents an interesting challenge to public relations – as according to the :

Public relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.

Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.

But Schillings claims to protect “brand reputation” against “external events” by the use of “legal tools” as”part of your communications and risk strategy”. 

It cites examples such as the media seeking to report fraud or extra marital executive affairs, and a disgruntled ex-exployee:

styling himself as a whistleblower, has got his story in the press. The next day your share-price drops 14%. You’re called to an emergency meeting – what will you suggest?

The answer according to Schillings is, of course, to use “legal pressures” and be proactive in “managing” treatment by the media.

So no need for public relations professionals to build positive relationships or counsel management against behaviour that is likely to lead to negative headlines – simply use the might of money and legal means to silence those who oppose you.

Schillings clearly knows that reputation management is the remit of public relations as its senior partner was a chair and the company  the champagne reception sponsor, at the PR Week PRGlobal: International Reputation Management Summit last week.

The PRCA is similarly keen to promote legal approaches to protecting clients, working with who qualified at Schillings.

I wonder how both these organisations will respond to Schillings’ role in censoring online comment now that the story has been picked up by mainstream media.  reports Boris Johnson whose blog was a collateral victim of Schillings’ reputation management strategy:

Mr Johnson hit out at the closure of his website, calling it “a serious erosion of free speech”.

“This is London, not Uzbekistan,” the former Spectator editor and MP for Henley-on-Thames said.

“It is unbelievable that a website can be wiped out on the say-so of some tycoon.

“We live in a world where internet communication is increasingly vital, and this is a serious erosion of free speech.”

So the question is, does PR stand for free speech or legal might in reputation management?


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