Defenses Against Libel

It is important to be careful when reporting to try not to engage in libel. If you are accused of libel, there are some defenses you have as a PR professional or reporter that are protected under The First Amendment. Some defenses include: opinion, innocent construction, truth, fair report, context, absolute privilege, qualified privilege, fair comment, neutral reporting, single publication, libel-proof plaintiff and single mistake.

Among these defenses are conditions concerning how you portray the information, the context of the information, who offered the information and who the information is about.

How you say the information is a huge component to finding a defense against libel.

Truth is an absolute protection against libel, but sometimes even if a statement is not 100 percent true, it may still qualify as non-defamatory. Defamation is using written or spoken speech to damage someone’s reputation.

With regard to the defense of innocent construction, the case depends on what the words actually mean. If the jury decides the words have more than one meaning and one is not defamatory, then the defendant cannot be sued for libel.

In a fair reporting defense, the statement does not need to be true at all. To claim fair reporting as a defense, you must report “accurately and fairly” information obtained from a public record of what was said during an official proceeding. In the case of Edwards v. National Audubon Society, scientists sued The New York Times for reporting that they were being paid to lie about pesticide effects on birds. The New York Times was protected from being sued because it quoted accurately and neutrally the scientists and The National Audubon Society.

The context of the information you present can protect you against libel. In the previously mentioned case of Edwards v. The National Audubon Society, The New York Times was protected against libel because it reported neutrally. This defense is accepted about 50 percent of the time. A more substantial defense was found in Ollman v. Evans (1985). Bertell Ollman sued Rowland Evans and Robert Novak for questioning his qualification for a position as chair for the Department of Government and Politics at The University of Maryland. He claims the column in question led to the withdrawal of the job offer. The court ruled in favor of Evans and Novak because nothing they said could be taken as fact.

The case of Ollman v. Evans (1985) developed the Ollman Test, which is a set of questions to help the court decide if something is a fact or opinion. The first question “is the statement verifiable,” helped decide the verdict in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal (1990). In this case, the journalist wrote that in his opinion Milkovich lied under oath. The perjury could have been proved or disproved, so the journalist lost this case.

In the case of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1987), the story in question was not true, but also did not pass the Ollman Test. Hustler Magazine won the appeal because it did not use actual malice against Falwell and the story was “so ridiculous,” it could not possibly be true. Actual malice is knowing the information is false or publishing without caring if the information is true. Actual malice must be proved to qualify a statement as libel when regarding a public figure, or someone who thrust themselves into the limelight.

Who made a statement could be a defense even if the truth or context is not on your side. In the absolute privilege defense, a journalist can quote someone within the performance of their duty. In Hurst v. Capital Cities Media Inc. (2001), Hurst sued Capital for false-light invasion of privacy. Capital was protected against libel because it quoted the state’s attorney.

Related to absolute privilege is qualified privilege. In qualified privilege you can quote a report about judicial coverage and media accounts of open public forums as long as they are in session.

If no public official stated something and you are found libelous, you can be given a warning. Sometimes a reporter will get away with a single mistake defense. In this defense, they take pity on reporters who have no prior offences.

If the journalist has prior offences, then he may also not qualify for trial by reason of the statute of limitations.

In a single publication defense, the most recent publication of a libelous statement cannot be brought to court if a certain amount of time has elapsed.

The last set of defenses encompass the subject matter of the accused statements. In the case of Cherry v. Des Moines Leader (1901), the vaudeville act The Cherry Sisters sued for defamation in an article written by the Des Moines Leader. The courts claimed someone who is in the public eye cannot be offended if they are criticized. This defense is known as fair comment.

In the case of certain people in the public eye, such as the convicted mobster Cardillo, he claimed that Doubleday tarnished his reputation. The courts ruled Cardillo was libel proof because he damaged his own reputation by being a mobster. This libel-proof plaintiff defense protects statements about people that are “so ridiculous” or self-damaging that their reputations cannot be further tarnished.

There are many defenses against libel for a reporter to use. Libel is a serious accusation because a reputation is a privilege of every American citizen and having it tarnished can result in the loss of a job, friends and money. Even though reputation tarnishing is a terrible thing, The First Amendment is more important because it keeps the ideals of the framers of the Constitution alive. The freedom of the press, under The First Amendment, must be protected so that people can live in a safe, just and informed world.


Planning an event can be stressful. Many times finding a place to start is the hardest part. First you need a goal. What do you want your event to accomplish? Do you want to showcase something, reach a new audience, reward someone, fundraise or something else?

With this in mind, you will need to make a list of all the things you will need for your event. I recommend using an excel spread sheet to make an easy to follow chart. The first column should consist of the items and/or tasks that you need to execute your event. Next, add how many of each item or task need to be completed. One column should have a deadline, one that gives you a cushion of time, for you to have an item collected or a task completed. Then you should make a note of how much each of these items or tasks will cost. Finally, add the point of contact (POC) for each item or task. Don’t forget to leave a few extra columns for notes and to track your progress.

Your first step is to either decide a date, venue or speaker. Choose whichever is the most important to your purpose and begin there.

The date and time should correspond with your audience. If most of your audience works during the week 9-5, then you might want to host your event after six or seven o’clock on a Saturday. The time may also conflict with the venue, so give yourself a few options when booking a time and place.

The venue needs to be able to hold the guests you want to invite; however, you should be cautious of rooms too large. Rooms that are too large can be hard to fill and might make your event look unsuccessful.

Budget is an important step that should be addressed at the beginning of your planning, at least briefly before making any big decisions. Before finalizing the budget, be realistic about what things will cost and how professional you want your event to be.

If you don’t have the money or budget to host the kind of even you’d like, then look to sponsors for help. Sponsors can relate to your theme, business or can be unrelated. Be sure to reach out to sponsors after you have a budget in mind and be reasonable about the amount you ask for.

After the venue and speaker are all set and any sponsors are confirmed, you can determine how many people you can invite. Look at how many your venue can hold and how much money you have allocated for food to help you decide on who to invite. You can invite people through Facebook, email, phone call or the mail. If you choose to call or mail your invites then make sure you have enough time to reach each person and get a response.

In the weeks leading up to your event, check your chart and make sure everything has been completed. Call your sponsors, guests and speakers to confirm the participation. With the guest list finalized, create name tags and check-in lists for the final event.

Your second to last step is to execute the event. The final step includes thanking your participants and following up. Send thank you notes to everyone who participated or helped you, and ask them for feedback.

Planning events is not easy and the time leading up to them flies. However, you don’t have to do it alone. Grab your friends and colleagues and delegate tasks for them to help you out.

Most of all, try to have fun and make it fun for others.


If a picture speaks a thousand words, how about a TV appearance? Appearing on screen will boost a company’s image tenfold. Being seen on television creates a sense of credibility and power that cannot be established on any other platform. But, how do you land a spot on televised?

As a beginner, you have to start out small. It is almost impossible to secure a televised interview without connections and previous experience. First, you need to attract the attention of reporters. The best way to grab the attention of journalists is to connect your topic to a current trend. Finding some way to attach yourself to a popular current topic automatically increases a company’s credibility. Topics that never go out of style are fast services, affordable services, online technology, and personalized experiences.

Journalists receive hundreds of submissions each day. If a company wants its story to stand out, it must be unique. Every company claims their product is the best that was ever made and that it is going to shut down the market. These shallow claims are not credible. There needs to be proof. A company’s pitch should be flooded with examples and testimonials backing up it’s claims. Journalists are intrigued by stories of new businesses, product launches, partnerships, and recently announced corporate goals.

Another trick to elevating the chances of scoring an interview is having an interesting story. Second to the product, an alluring background story is most important for catching the eye of a reporter. The story of how a company began with a man sailing 10,000 miles around the globe to find the perfect tomato to make his pizza sauce will peak the interest of a lot of people. Once you have their interest, you are in.

Finally, to catch an interviewer’s attention companies may extend to them a special offer. A company may provide a journalist an exclusive interview or insider details. However, it is extremely important not to give a lot of reporters these opportunities. If a group of journalists find out they all have been given the same opportunity for exclusionary details, a company will gain a negative reputation.

Once a company has established itself with journalists, it is time to branch out into local television and begin your adventure to the top. Attempting to appear on local news channels is an excellent way to begin a television appearance career. Local news stations often prefer to use companies from the surrounding area, where there is less struggle over airtime. Even better, local station viewership is on the rise while national news viewership is tumbling down.

Advertising yourself as an expert in a specific field or topic will make you more marketable for televised interviews. If you are the owner of a grocery store, you could label yourself an expert on health issues and produce production. Then, if a giant rainstorm comes and damages hundreds of acres of crops, journalists will look to you for insight on the situation.

Developing preexisting relationships with the media before attempting to make a television debut is beneficial. A helpful way to establish these unions is research. Investigate certain reporters, get an understanding of what they typically cover, and how they cover their stories. Keep what you have learned in mind when pitching your own story to the media. Your pitch should include how your story relates to their interest, why it is important, and should include lots of substance – no filler or fluff.

After you confirm a spot, it is necessary to consider who will be your company spokesperson. It does not have to be the CEO or marketing specialist. The best way to decide who will deliver your message is to simply observe. Who talks the most at roundtables, who is popular on social media, who knows a lot of trivia facts, who thoroughly enjoys their job. These are all exceptional aspects to examine when searching for a spokesperson.

How a person is in the office and online are great indicators of how they will perform in front of the camera. Monitoring what they say and how they say it will give you excellent insight into how they will perform. If they are good storytellers during lunch and grab everyone’s attention, on air should be no different.

Once you have chosen your spokesperson, it is time to practice. It is useful to know that on air, responses should not last any longer than 12 seconds. Leading up to your appearance your social media team should be on top of their game. Your entire fan base and clients should be aware that you are going to be on TV. But, do not release any details of what will be discussed. One, it will make people curious. Two, your goal is not to attract the most viewers, but to build credibility with your clients.

Before your segment is filmed, request a copy. News stations hate when asked for footage during or after a taping. The footage requested should be posted everywhere. Not every news station posts their interviews online, and even if they do, it will be gone into the internet abyss within a couple of days. All segments collected should be compiled in one folder on a company computer for later use.

Since the goal of your interview is to build the reliability of your brand, an employee should do a screenshot of the interview. A flattering and professional picture should be taken while the speaker is in speaking in front of the new station logo. Later, this picture should be applied to all social media accounts as the profile picture.

After the first interview, a company will have gained notoriety and established a relationship with journalists and news stations, hopefully beginning a long lasting connection.


The marketing departments of several big universities were recently asked what the goals were in recently launched social media campaigns. The three most common answers were to raise awareness, attract more students, and to strengthen the school’s reputation. How each university launches its message varies greatly. Some have embraced technology more than others. Being well versed in technology aids in relating to the 18-24 year old demographic most colleges are hoping to reach.

100% of all colleges in the United States are on at least one social media platform. Social media is the best way to organically bring together community, administration, and  students. There are some universities that have multiple accounts on one forum. An example would be Columbia University. Columbia has its main Columbia University Twitter page where general information is posted, then there are individual Twitter accounts for each department: business, science, admissions, etc.

When a university has multiple accounts under its name, it is important to implement university wide guidelines. It is worthwhile for each account to be unique and creative, but there are lines that cannot be crossed in order to maintain a sense of professionalism and uniformity. It is wise to hold university wide social media conferences.

These meetings allow account administrators to coordinate and construct posts in-sync. It is smart for universities to have a constant theme. A good idea is to always keep the university's mission statement in mind when posting. Picking three words from the mission statement to incorporate in every message help create a sense of unity.

The key to each department gaining the most followers is to be distinctive. There has to be a reason to follow that account aside from membership. A university cannot post the same press release on every account and hope for popularity. If every account does post about the same topic, each should put its own spin on the story.

Having its own account allows a department to showcase its capabilities, achievements, and expertise. Online is the perfect place to display awards, recognitions, events, and projects. Posting online allows users to promote before, during, and after an event. These individual accounts can be great resources for journalists.

When a school joins social media, it is important for posters to ask themselves: one, what do we want to achieve?; two, who are we targeting?; three, how should we measure our campaign’s progress and success?; and, fpur, how will be encourage interaction? A majority of students do not receive their news from the press, they discover announcements through social media. Since students rely heavily on social media, it is important that universities are proficient in utilizing them.

Having well formatted social media accounts can do a lot for a school. It can create interest, promote events, and make life easier for students and staff. Stanford University recently released iStanford. iStanford is an app for Stanford students that allows them to register for classes, read campus news, and access campus maps, plus more. Through iStanford, administrators can also post messages, notices, and warnings in seconds for the entire Stanford family to see.

In case of a disaster, having a well functioning social media system can save lives. In the event of a terror threat, a warning could be sent momentarily, alerting all students about what to do and where to go to stay safe. The internet is an excellent form of emergency contact.

After a public relations disaster such as a teacher-student sex scandal or a corruption sting, there are several procedures a school should put in place. First, encourage students not to leak any information. Second, advise staff where to redirect journalists and how to spot a journalist. Sometimes writers will pose as someone else to extract information from unsuspecting staff members. Also, if anyone would like to give a quote, it should be anonymous. “Individuals are considered innocent until proved guilty under our justice system; the media is not.”

Just like any other situation, it is critical how a school responds through social media. Schools need to project an image of caring. Students need to see that their administrators care about students beyond their wallets. Posts should extend farther than registration reminders. Stories about good things happening on campus are always quality material. When posting, quality should always win over quantity.

A school’s best public relations tool is the students and faculty themselves. Word of mouth is the best and most trusted form of marketing. A positive review from someone who attends the school is worth more than any press release. Students and staff are “an extension of a school’s brand.” Incoming students would trust a student-run blog documenting life at University of Delaware way more than a blog produced by a hired University of Delaware marketer.

How the school responds to students is also important. Three main actions a social media correspondent should take are to engage, listen, and respond. If a lot of time passes between posts, or response times are longer than being put on hold by Comcast, students will forget you. It is okay to not have an answer. However, it is important to still post a message announcing that an update will be released once more information has been gathered.