A wry smile crossed my lips when I heard the news that lawyers have applied for a court order to force Twitter to hand over the person behind the whistleblower account. It’s taken one anonymous tweeter to spectacularly out the famous footballer hiding behind his privacy injunction and, in a heartbeat, neuter the legal profession. Now blood lusting lawyers crave a sacrifice: a public crucifixion to warn others not to engage in mass collaboration with total strangers on the web.
I have always believed there has been a calculus of public vs. private interest, but this week has proved that the law is broken. The wider world is not interested in the deliberations of a dusty-wigged UK high court judge. The legal framework must try and understand the new age of free, libertarian speech especially when they are considering a celebrity’s position on his or her commercial value. There appears to be a very obvious point: the law is useless! It’s broken and unenforceable.
For the record, I do believe in a privacy law, but only if the conduct and careful appliance of fame is not undone by unacceptable behaviour. Legal muscle has its place but it cannot solely or independently save a career and reputation meltdown – the hapless attempts to halt the inexorable momentum of social media will now thrust the guilty more quickly into to the sewer of purposeful disparagement.
A few years ago I viewed, with some trepidation, the onset of this kind of web content, the sort that would unleash a revolution of new possibilities. I spent time preaching to agents and celebrities about the new dangers of the age. My protestations fell on deaf ears.
Few public figures learnt anything from the wretched and very public legal sagas surrounding John Terry and Wayne Rooney a year ago. Not even a downturn in their earning potential from sponsors and brands seemed to make a mark. As yet another hapless celebrity attempts to use the force of the law to turn the internet tide and save a tattered reputation, it is time to face some hard facts.
The celebrity industry is gigantic, Paris Hilton no less is by Forbes estimated Paris Hilton value around $30 and $50 million two years ago. We learnt last year Wayne Rooney earns £760000 a year from his image rights. These are big figures and this is why public figures will invest in expensive legal council to protect their privacy. Especially if the story doesn’t fit the projected brand truth
We are living in an age of experimental democracy. I have stood and watched, with some trepidation, journalism and technology battering against the walls of the law. Recent cases have arguably set a bad and confusing precedent. Famous and public cases have created destabilisation via the online world. The PR profession is grappling with the change.
Arguably, the social media world is destroying truth. PR folk recognize it’s an absolute fact that once you’re in the public eye everything changes.
The revolution in celebrity has changed the rules of engagement and the role of the celebrity has changed. This is the modern age, the age of the super-injunction, the age when celebrities want to keep their dirty laundry in bomb- and journalist-proof cages so that not even the slightest whiff of scandal can escape. Celebrity is now more than just playing in a team or starring on the screen. The public investment in the brand and therefore brand truth is more important than a spun image. The days of suppressing the facts are over.
If the brand behaves in a certain way then that’s its brand truth. The new social media age will out the truth, will focus on the authentic profile. If that isn’t the way certain public figures want it to be, they may find they have to change: they should realise that openly threatening will be unlikely to encourage investment from sponsors.
Legal firms specializing in this arena at the moment try to apply chloroform to the faces of troublesome editors. There isn’t enough anaesthetic, or the means to apply it, to smother the web. As for spraying threatening letters in a bid to suppress the facts, this is hat so old it’s fossilised when thousands of tweeters are registering support or outrage and have the ability to pass on the information. You can’t sue or stop them all.
Those celebs who engage in a sensible lifestyle and recognize that fame is a curse invest wisely in agents of communication. They weigh up their options professionally and seek to communicate their brand ethos. Of course they deserve to be protected from the lies and the defamers. How? Well, there’s the rub. We have entered an age of democratic experimentation, so it is time to come to terms with this truth of the situation facing then and therefore their own truth.
It’s no surprise that many of the major A list Hollywood names prefer the council of a wise old grey haired PR wrangler, a cautionary breed schooled in the laws of human error. A great flack is part shrink, part wise council, part foot soldier; someone not afraid of the blood or the battle. A listers will defer to someone who has a trust of the medium they work in.
The digital swirl has changed the game, so the provision for translucency and an ability to find a way to manage an enormous global community that has an interest in his clients brand is vital. There must be a place for sensible conversations with the media, both on- and offline, that might undo their clients.
Few UK public figures invest in long-term media management. Instead they prefer to pay eye-watering fees to a class of lawyer who is not graced with the skills of media negotiation. We are in an age where trust is thin the ground. Brute force commands a premium.
Good PR folk are trying to address the challenges that face them in a world where social networks are revolutionizing the planet. Modern media relations are about reaching out, not flexing legal muscle. Celebrities and public figures must invest in help that knows how to engage a whole new generation of consumers, whose values are being reshaped almost daily by their new social dialogue. Of course it’s not as easy as that, as the furore over someone posting information on Twitter about people who have allegedly taken out super-injunctions proves.
Crises come and crises go: the trick for a good flack is to develop a pleasant outward demeanour for their client. If the client can live up to it they’ll do well, but in these Twitter-fuelled days a caddish serial offender who tries to hide will be found out. Twitter makes a PR’s job harder, not easier.
The days of things being suppressed for decades are over, thanks to Twitter. We’re not living in old Hollywood any more. It is for everyone to change his or her ways of thinking; time for attitude, heart and a sense of proportion instead of craven process.