Defamation in Public Relations

Ethics In The News Presentation 

Myleen Santiago 

Dallas Shinn 

Our presentation discusses defamation in relation to public relations. Defamation is an action or statement made that damages the reputation of another. In other words, it is any type of communication that results in someone experiencing hatred, scrutiny, or ridicule. Libel and slander are the two types of defamation statements that can be made. Libel is a false statement that is published in writing that references an individual in a false light. Slander is different because it is spoken. In many cases this turns into a “he said”, “she said” situation when there is no underlying proof. In a defamation lawsuit, the accuser must prove the four elements of defamation: proving the statement to be true, arguing that the statement was an opinion, proving that there was no harm done as a result, and finding evidence of the accuser agreeing with the statement made. 

Private and public individuals who face defamation must handle it differently. A private person who is trying to prove defamation only needs to prove negligence. This means that the person knew the statement was false and defamatory. A  public figure needs to prove that the defamer acted intentionally. 

Our presentation on defamation discusses real-life lawsuits that has been popularized throughout the media. In 2011, Katie Holmes settled a lawsuit against celebrity magazine, Star, for 50 million dollars. The magazine printed their January edition of the magazine with the cover line “Addiction Nightmare. Katie Drug Shocker!” Donald Trump has been involved in many defamation lawsuits including the Miss Universe scandal. In 2012, Donald Trump’s Miss Universe organization won the defamation lawsuit against former Miss Pennsylvania, Sheena Monnin. Sheena led a campaign alleging that the results of the Miss USA pageant were rigged because she failed to secure her first place spot at the Miss USA pageant. At the end of the five million dollar lawsuit, Sheena was proven to have defamed the Miss Universe Organization. 

Along with those high-profile cases, we also covered one of Tom Cruise’s many defamation cases, which was his case against Actustar. The French magazine published a quote from a former adult actor who falsely claimed that he slept with Tom Cruise and as a result of this alleged affair, Tom Cruise got a divorce. In the end, he came out as lying and Tom Cruise was able to prove all four points of defamation which led to a legal victory. The primary reason for including this case was to shine a light on the public relations team’s role in defamation cases with high-profile celebrities. Cruise’s team has come out publicly and stated they will always take it to court when given the opportunity as that is the grandest way to ensure the safety of Tom Cruise’s reputation. You can’t damage the reputation of a man when it is proven time and time again that the stories put out are false.

As just mentioned, celebrities and public figures have trained PR teams to help with crisis management. There are six steps to managing a crisis through public relations. First, you identify the risk and establish what type of ethical situation you are dealing with. The celebrity has to respond with urgency as well as identify the targeted audience. The last two steps include being honest and genuine, along with being consistent in trying to not repeat what has happened. 

Before proceeding into our prime example of the presentation, we want to tie defamation to a modern term that many people are aware of: cancel culture. Cancel culture is extremely prevalent in society today, especially on social media. Getting “canceled” means that you have been culturally blocked from having a prominent public platform or career. A public figure says or does something offensive. Then, public backlash ensues following politically progressive opinions and thoughts consuming social media. Finally, the word “cancel” comes into play where the goal is to end the celebrity or public figure’s career. Cancel culture calls for immediate accountability, boycotting, and online action from strangers and other public figures. In the presentation, we gave a more positive example using influencer Tana Mongeau to describe different points of view of being canceled in the media. Tana Mongeau is someone who embraces her controversy and instead of allowing it to bring her down she uses it in a comical way. However, there have been several instances of cancel culture being toxic and damaging to not only one’s career but their mental state. In these cases, PR teams have to act quickly, even if what their client did is horrible. With that said, we had the class analyze the recent aftermath of Astroworld 2021.

Astroworld 2021 was supposed to be a fun, raging, festival that ended up being a deadly disaster. There are several factors that came to play in this disaster of a festival that was raised to the artist, Travis Scott, in advance, which he and his team chose to ignore. The venue was far over capacity between the overselling of tickets and countless people sneaking in and ramming through barricades. The number of people in attendance far outweighed the police and security presence and chaos was inevitable. In the midst of moshing, people were screaming for help, climbing on stage begging for the show to end, and literally grappling on for their lives. This resulted in 8 deaths, 11 people went into cardiac arrest, many injured, and several scarred. The footage of Travis Scott continuing on and neglecting the severity of what was going on around him caused immediate outrage worldwide. Travis Scott is on the brink of being canceled. 

We had the class watch footage, hear the facts, listen to the media’s reaction and also people around the world’s reactions. We then had them reflect and in pairs/groups discuss their next steps as his PR team according to the 6 steps we introduced to them earlier in the presentation. They were able to evaluate for themselves the ethical dilemma of doing what is right and doing what you are paid to do. In this situation several students said they would rather not work for him, but also realized that you will be placed in these tough situations and can’t always say no, given you need to make a living. That was the point of our assignment to the class that we wanted to get across and I think the consensus of what their next moves would be was also very good. After they got to speak on their strategies, we then showed and analyzed what his team has done thus far. 

Our presentation was more so on the practice of crisis communication when running into issues of defamation within the media. The students were able to practice crisis communication strategy on a tough ethical scenario and I think it opened some eyes to the job of public relations when you work for high profile individuals. 

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