To Sue, or Not to Sue: Libel

Libel from a PR Point of View

Legal System
Getty Images / Paul Bradbury

Most libel cases are filed by private citizens. There are reasons for that. Private citizens have a much lower bar to hurdle. They have to prove that the statement was factually wrong, that it was published, that it referred to them and damaged their reputation -- and that somebody is responsible for it. That the person who made the statements was negligent.

As a public relations professional, you're probably not dealing with a private citizen.

Public figures have to weigh the costs versus the benefits not only from a legal and a financial angle, but also in terms of public perception and reputation. However, there clearly are times when a public figure should consider filing a lawsuit for defamation of character.

PR Costs vs PR Benefits of Libel Suits

To win a libel suit, public figures must prove actual malice, that whoever published an incorrect statement -- or a blatant lie -- not only did it but did so with reckless disregard for the truth.

Proving malice is a high hurdle to scale, and the first thing to consider is whether the attempt is worth it. Even in clear-cut cases that look like sure wins for the plaintiff, it's not always smart from a PR perspective to file a lawsuit. Why? There are three primary reasons that you may not want to pursue the case. 

It Keeps the False Story in the Media

A false story might get attention for a few days or weeks.

A libel lawsuit could drag out for months or years. If you go to court, other media outlets who wouldn't think of reprinting or repeating the original false statement will cover the story and repeat the charge. Can you sue them, too? No, because they can report on court proceedings and filings without fear of litigation.

 It's often smarter, from a PR standpoint, to let a story die than give it new life.

It Puts You in the Hot Seat, Too 

Sure, it might feel good to put a bad reporter on the spot, to have your attorney grill him in a deposition or put him on the stand for a long cross-examination that reveals how sloppy the journalist was with the facts, or how the reporter emailed a friend and wrote, "Who cares if it's true?"

Except the defense gets to do the same to an alleged victim of the defamation. Defense attorneys can keep you on the witness stand for days. They may hire investigators to put you under the microscope. Got anything you don't want to be made public? They might not only find it, but the attorney may then ask you about it in open court, and you better believe all the journalists covering the trial will report any scoops those interesting tidbits about your tax returns, nannies who aren't citizens, and anything else they think juicy.

It May Be a Hollow Victory

Let's say everything goes your way. The media outlet who libeled you has no real defense. You cruise through court and win. Even then, it might be a hollow victory. The money you receive may not amount to much. Attorney fees are steep.

You may wind up fronting a lot of money (a trial easily can cost five or six figures) for libel cases that bring you small financial compensation. 

When the Benefits Outweigh the Costs

Back when Tom Cruise was married to Nicole Kidman, a British tabloid printed things that were pretty terrible. There's no point in repeating them. Cruise and Kidman sued, and British law makes libel suits much easier to win than in America.

Cruise and Kidman won the case.

BBC reports conflicting accounts of how much they actually won, though. BBC said the figure might be in excess of 100,000 British pounds plus 150,000 pounds in attorney fees -- but the BBC also quoted a tabloid spokesperson who said those figures were exaggerated, that Cruise and Kidman got far less.

For average people, that might be a lot of money.

For two of Hollywood's highest-paid actors, people were making tens of millions of dollars per movie, it was nothing. 

Despite the dollar amount, I think the Cruise case points to reasons when filing a lawsuit for defamation makes sense. He and Kidman were right to sue because they needed to stop similar stories from being published.

When to Pursue a Libel Case

There are two main reasons, from a PR perspective, to pursue libel lawsuits:

  • To stop a media outlet or individual from continuing a pattern of defamation
  • To stop a relentless series of defamatory stories from appearing in multiple media outlets

The second reason is particularly important. You don't want the media to declare open season on your reputation. When that happens, journalists may pile on and to try to out-scoop each other in detailing every tiny flaw in your character.

Let's face it: there are times when you need to stop that ball before it gets rolling.