Kelso Consulting's blog for lawyers

Lawyers' threatening letters can be published... so deft phrasing needed

By Tim Prizeman, Director - Kelso Consulting (Public Relations agency)

This "must read" legal exchange on the Taylor Swift alt-right ding-dong is most illuminating

It is very rare that letters from lawyers enter the "must read" category, so it is not lightly that I recommend the retort to Taylor Swift's expensive law firm Venable LLP from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).

It all originates in an article that makes various allegations about Taylor Swift and how her music has seemingly been embraced by the far right in America.

Quite frankly I've yet to read the article nor could I name a single Taylor Swift song. If she walked up and said hello, I wouldn't recognise her.

The veracity of the article's allegations are not important:  what IS really interesting is the attempts by Swift's lawyer to keep his threatening legal letter secret, and the comprehensive rebuttal of this by the ACLU on behalf of the blog, which has gone on to publish the legal exchange in full.

The really interesting legal questions regarding threatening letters from lawyers are:

  • Can a lawyer claim their threatening letter is copyright, so you cannot publish it as this would breach copyright?
  • Can the lawyer claim their threatening letter to you is a privileged legal matter, so publishing it would breach... well, blah blah... you can fill in the rest.

Spoiler alert. The answer to both questions is "No!" As eloquently expressed by attorneys at ACLU.

As they eloquently say on page 4 of their letter on the first point "you may no more use copyright law to hide the contents of your letter from public scrutiny than a kidnapper could use it to prevent his victim’s family from giving a copy of the ransom note to the police".

The second point is addressed in their letter as "utter nonsense... First, the claim of confidentiality can only be described as odd, particularly coming from a lawyer; you cannot really expect that a person who receives a letter like this will feel any duty to keep this matter a little secret between the two of you."

So the key take out for businesses, particularly those concerned about protecting their reputation, whether in America or other areas with similar legal systems (such as the UK), are:

  • Your threatening legal letters may be published (or, conversely, you may choose to do this with ones you receive);
  • Clumsy legal threats, especially those that are published on social media and subsequently go viral, will often generate far more coverage and angst than the original incident. For instance, in this case the PopFront blog that published the original article currently has a paltry 1.3K followers on Facebook and 360 followers on Twitter, a fraction of the coverage generated by all the resulting coverage on numerous Hollywood and celeb news sites and blogs.

While it is in a different category, this letter sent from Netflix's lawyers to a Chicago bar breaching their copyright regarding the popular Stranger Things series shows that, with a deft hand, often it is not what you say but how you say it that matters.



Topics: Public Relations, Crisis, Lawyers, Taylor Swift

Tim Prizeman, Director - Kelso Consulting (Public Relations agency)

Written by Tim Prizeman, Director - Kelso Consulting (Public Relations agency)

Director of Public Relations agency Kelso Consulting. We specialise in working with B2B tech companies, management consultants, financial and professional firms to help them build business-winning reputations. We do this through award-winning PR skills and a proven approach to creating high-impact thought leadership campaigns. I am the author of The Thought Leadership Manual: