Create Better Content by First Creating a Better Relationship with Your Lawyers

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Legal would not approve using this screengrab of Tom Cruise from “The Firm.”

Using Google Images can cost you thousands of dollars. A Jewel-Osco ad about Michael Jordan resulted in a decade-long lawsuit and millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements. A Tweet triggers a $6M lawsuit. With every high-profile lawsuit, #socialmediafail hashtag, and cease-and-desist letter, we know lawyers and general counsel become more and more likely to pull out the red pen and cut anything that could be considered a legal gray area.

And so on we go, back to our desks to create content that will get approved. If it also happens to be funny, profound, engaging, or interesting, well, that’s an added bonus. The most important thing is getting it past Legal, right?  Wrong.

How did we let things get to this point? How did lawyers gain so much control over what we do and the content we create? How they did go from “General Counsel” to “What I Say Goes”?

It’s because they’re speaking a language that’s totally foreign to us. We accept their feedback because we are completely and utterly unfamiliar with things like copyright laws, regulatory guidelines, and legal precedents.

You see, their job isn’t to create engaging content. It’s not to accumulate likes, shares, or follows. It’s not to make something go viral. It’s to protect the interests of their organization. That’s it. That’s what they care about. No lawyer has ever been fired for saying “no” to a Facebook post. So, put yourself in their shoes – what incentive do they have to let you take any risk?

That communication breakdown is why I recently moderated a panel discussion for the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Pittsburgh chapter where I debated these topics with three intellectual property attorneys from The Webb Law Firm. I wanted to find out how content creators, PR people, and marketers can improve their relationships with their legal counsel. Here are three key takeaways for anyone creating content for their brand:

Do your own research. Your in-house legal counsel probably aren’t experts in copyright, intellectual property, or trademark law. Your job is to help educate them. Come to the meeting armed with knowledge about what is and isn’t allowed, what other brands have done and what the legal precedents are. Or, find a contact at a local law firm that does focus on these topics and connect them with your lawyers.  Demonstrate you’ve done the research and you’re comfortable enough with it that you can have a conversation about the benefits and risks.

“No” doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. When asked a specific question, lawyers will give a specific answer. A question like “can I just take photos at this next event without needing to track down signed photo waivers for everyone?” will always result in “no” for an answer. However, by following that up with “but what if I posted a film and photography notice with all of the appropriate disclaimers at all entrances to the event?” you’ve now provided a potential solution that allows for compromise.

Resist the urge to make user-generated content more than it is. A celebrity’s video goes viral and she’s wearing a shirt with your logo on it? Retweet it but don’t imply that she endorses your brand because of it. A fan uploads an Instagram photo of him drinking your brand’s beverage? Like it, comment on it, but don’t download it and share it on Twitter with your own take on the photo. Brands get themselves into trouble when they try to modify external content, share it across channels where it wasn’t posted originally, or imply endorsement. The safest thing to do is ask for permission, attribute it correctly, and stay within the same channel (that way, you’re protected by the terms of use for that platform).

With a little research and a lot of empathy, you can help turn your brand’s lawyers into a content creation resource, rather than an adversary.

For more information on content curation and whether or not you can fall into legal trouble, take a look at The Webb Law FirmPRSA’s informational guide about copyright or visit lawyer, blogger and speaker Kerry O’Shea Gorgone’s blog that discusses legal issues social media marketers can face.

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About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

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