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I was watching CNN this afternoon after gutting my pumpkin and toasting the seeds when I heard about FEMA’s response to the California wild fires. I was blown away by the PR nightmare that has ensued. I actually sat around until they ran the story again to make sure I heard things right and then hit the computer.

For those who missed this one, FEMA issued a press conference last Tuesday to update the media and public on its response to the California fires and how it has been handling the situation. The conference was called last minute and the media was apparently unable to attend, but the conference took place anyway with FEMA employees posing as inquisitive reporters while FEMA directors answered questions. The tape of the fake conference was then issued to the media.

Once word got out about the staged press conference, FEMA issued an apology, saying that in its attempt to disseminate a lot of information to answer previous media questions, it had made an error in judgment and that the employees who had participated would be disciplined. However, only the AP was invited to witness that statement. Talk about making a bad situation worse. For more details, read and watch the story yourself.

Here’s the situation in my eyes. I give FEMA a nod for good intent. It wanted to answer questions, wanted to get information out about the situation and didn’t want to hide. All good things, however, there were a number of ways it could have done this aside from issuing a last minute press conference. (i.e. set up an FAQ area on its Web site, etc.) From case studies I covered in class, it seems to me that a common mistake made during crises is rushing into disseminating information without considering key messages, who should act as spokesperson and what the appropriate forum for distributing the message might be.

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gavel.jpgAs part of one of my courses, Law of Advertising and PR, I was invited to attend a conference on ‘The Changing Face of Media Law’ at Kent State’s Stark Campus yesterday morning. While this counted as CLEs for practicing lawyers and provided great insight to the attendees in various news media fields, I learned a few things as well.

We just covered copyright issues in class and are now moving into corporate speech, so the first panel discussion I sat through, ‘Copyright, Trademark and the Internet,’ was a nice review and also brought up some public relations challenges I haven’t had to face just yet.

  • Copyright: Rights and Exemptions- Although the copyright owner has the right to distribute, perform publicly and create derivative works from the copyrighted material, other parties are only allowed limited access as an exemption under the Fair Use policy. This allows for the reproduction of copyright materials for the purpose of comment, criticism or parody. Our presenter, Jeffrey Samuels, a professor at the University of Akron School of Law, also mentioned that factual work receives less protection under Fair Use than fiction, and that the reason behind the use is also a factor. (i.e. Using that copyright for commercial purposes receives little protection under Fair Use.)

Why does this matter? Well, I found out that blogging is actually a perfect example of a public relations forum specifically asking for trouble with copyright issues. Using large amounts of copyright material, or even small thumbnail images that are not yours can be a copyright infringement, and I didn’t realize that attribution is only a defense to plagiarism, not copyright.

Blogging follows the guidelines of transparent information flow with linking and attributing at the heart of it all, but service providers like WordPress have to address copyright issues all the time. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act limits service providers from some copyright infringement suits because they are simply providing a forum, not the actual infringing activity, but it is still their responsibility to remove said content if asked or they could face real trouble.

With the move to open, two-way communication methods being employed by corporations everywhere, I see public relations professionals getting the job of monitoring those discussions. I don’t pretend to know all the details, and if I were put in that position I would definitely be visiting my corporation’s legal department to learn more about what kind of potential troubles could ensue.

I’m all about blogging for business as long as I know all the legal repercussions of that tactic. It would be a bad PR strategy to just play it safe and not allow for any discussion, but I wouldn’t suggest inviting a crisis either.

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