Ron Smith's Teaching Notes on ...

Legal Issues

in Public Relations & Advertising


Updated Spring 2016 as a supplement to Professor Smith's textbooks
Strategic Planning for Public Relations and Becoming a Public Relations Writer, (Routledge/Taylor and Francis).


Public relations and marketing communication practitioners should be aware of various legal issues that can affect their professional practice. While practitioners are not expected to be legal experts, they should have a working knowledge of the issues.


Legal Principles  v/v  Public Relations/MarCom Practice

  • The law always trumps the desires and directives of clients and organizations.

  • Communication between public relations counsel and clients is confidential but not privileged; thus it can be used in legal proceedings.

  • Federal law prevents governmental agencies from spending money on advertising or promotion, but it does allow public education and public information. The term "public affairs" often is used for government and military.

  • Stock-issuing companies must provide timely and accurate information and are bound by specific rules of the Security and Exchange Commission.

  • The law addresses issues of corporate speech, including what companies may and may not say or advocate; specific regulations apply to communication in the political arena.

  • Nike v Kasky blurred lines between public relations communication and paid advertising.

  • Some states have laws protecting companies and nonprofit organizations for expressing concern or sympathy in situations involving injury or death by employees or customers.



Public relations and marketing communication practitioners deal with various legal issues


Negative, harmful language
Identification of person (not group)
Publication/communication to third party
Fault (negligance for a private person; malice for a public official/public figure)

Harm (extent of injury, loss, problems - basis of financial settlement)

Defenses: Substantial/provable truth, privilege, fair comment & criticism 
Additional technical defenses: Statute of limitations, consent, broadcast by political candidate 


Private facts (revealing intimate info w/o legitimate public concern)
Intrusion (gathering information secretly)
Misappropriation (commercial use of name/image)

Defenses: Explicit permission, implicit permission 

Legal designation of ownership for original creation

Applies to tangible form (writing, photo, video, etc.) but not to ideas or titles
Registered: Copyright notice (c)
International: 162 signer countries (Berne Convention)

Fair Use of Copyrighted Material:
- Nonprofit or noncommercial purposes (education, satire, research, thumbnail photos)
- Comment for reviews & excerpts
- Research (via libraries)

Original works owned by author/artist
Works for hire owned by organization that pays author/artist (salary or commission)


Common trademark and registered trademark
Both used by companies to protest a product and to distinguish it from competitors

Protection for names, logos, slogans, dolls, mascots, faces/voices
Trade dress: packaging, color (Owens Corning pink insulation), shape (Peperidge Farm Goldfish)
The tradmark symbol is affixed to the product itself
Writing about trademark: capitalize and use "brand" (i.e., Kleenex brand tissue)

Corporate lawyers closely monitor trademarked names; try to prevent trademarket terms from becoming common usage (i.e., sme forse such as aspirin and zipper once were trademarked but lost that status because they were used generically) 


Service Mark
Similar to trademark, protects symbols/words/titles associated with services & programs rather than products
Service mark with (sm) symbol is presented via public relations, advertising, or marketing vehicles

Examples of service marks:
Army: "Be All that You Can Be"
Maid Brigade
Better Business Bureau & torch logo
Huntington Beach CA only city legally able to call itself "Surf City USA"
Roto Rooter