When it comes to reputation management, 2023 was not a typical year. The debate over strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) intensified in September, after the government announced a new task force would be created to scrutinise whether legal actions are being used by some wealthy figures to target journalists.
Meanwhile, top reputation law firm Schillings announced the creation of a new in-house PR firm run by former Portland chairman George Pascoe-Watson and Victoria O’Byrne, who was previously communications director to the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Reputation management in 2023 also saw the rise of the ‘celebrity streaming confessional’: documentaries allowing well-known figures, often those who have been the subject of prolonged tabloid scrutiny, to speak ‘direct to camera’ and offer their own two cents on the stories that landed them on the front pages.
Following Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s eponymous Netflix show, which launched last Christmas, the floodgates opened this year with reveal-all docs by David Beckham, Robbie Williams, Pamela Anderson, and Coleen Rooney, whose Disney+ show The Real Wagatha Story explores her reputation battle with Rebekah Vardy and features defamation lawyer Paul Lunt — who won the 2022 Spear’s Reputation Lawyer of the Year for defending Rooney in the High Court.
Nigel Farage — who made successive front pages this year following the closure of his bank account with Coutts, which had deemed him a ‘disingenuous grifter’ and an individual with ‘significant reputational risks’ — also embraced the small screen this year in a bid to preen his own image. ‘People ask me: why are you going into the jungle?,’ Farage asked rhetorically in a TikTok video posted to the social media platform on 14 November. ‘Number one — it’s a big new audience to talk to’.
Big exits make a big impact
Reflecting on the biggest reputation management stories of 2023, Andy Coulson, seasoned reputation adviser and former communications director to David Cameron, says there are several takeaways for reputation managers and HNWs in the public eye.
For Coulson, the resignations of high-profile CEOs, including BP’s boss Bernard Looney in September, after he admitted he had not been ‘fully transparent’ over ‘historical relationships with colleagues, show company boards are less willing to ride out PR storms to protect their figureheads.
‘Big exits have been a defining trend in 2023, NatWest and BP possibly the most striking for very different reasons. It possibly shows a declining tolerance of board directors to be in the dock of the court of public opinion for very long at all. That will make already isolated CEOs feel even lonelier still.’
Of the resignation of Dame Alison Rose as NatWest’s CEO, following Nigel Farage being ‘de-banked’ from Coutts earlier this year, Coulson says they ‘undeniably handled it badly,’ but that they ‘now join a long list of institutions who have mishandled Nigel Farage.’
He added: ‘I don’t agree with much of his politics, I have to say, but he has been mismanaged by the Conservative Party. And he was underestimated and mismanaged by Coutts and NatWest as well.’
Schillings launches a new PR division
January 2024 will see the formal launch of Schillings’ new in-house PR outfit, which has been created ‘in response to an increasingly complex world where licences to operate for individuals and organisations have become dependent on reputation, now made in both the court of law and the court of public opinion,’ according to the firm.
‘In the modern age of intensified scrutiny, digital and privacy threats, smear campaigns, complex reputation risks and overnight cancel culture – super-charged by the ultra-high pace of the digital age – today’s contested space requires a broader and deeper bench of experts, the firm said.
Earlier this year, PR adviser Eliot Wilson wrote for Spear’s that the new ‘one-stop shop’ offering would give UHNW clients ‘efficiency in entrusting your affairs to one company rather than several’. ‘The expansion of services reflects the fact that the lines between disciplines are blurring,’ Wilson added.
While the Duke and Duchess of Sussex won their privacy claim against the Mail on Sunday, over the publication of a letter sent to her by her father, Wilson says that the lack of a concerted PR effort to handle communications during the protracted legal proceedings had ‘meant there was no consistent narrative, no projection of their version of the story, and the courtroom victory was in a sense wasted.’
Yet that is exactly the new type of rounded service a bolstered Schillings is set to offer UHNW clients. ‘It was a striking demonstration that you can win a battle but still lose the war. For some practices, the opportunity that Schillings and Dentons have seized is worth watching carefully, because it could be the future,’ Wilson said.
The debate over SLAPPs
Announcing a new government taskforce on SLAPPs on 11 September, Lucy Frazer, secretary of state for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, told parliament that lawsuits were being used to ‘seek to silence investigative journalists, writers and campaigners, often on unfounded defamation and privacy grounds which prevent the publication of information in the public interest’.
‘This abuse of the legal system is used by the wealthy to intimidate and financially exhaust opponents, threatening them with extreme costs for defending a claim and therefore undermining the reporting of important public interest issues,’ Frazer continued.
While new changes are being introduced to the government’s Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which ‘will allow SLAPPs to be thrown out by judges more quickly and place a cap on the costs for those targeted’ according to the cabinet minister, some reputation lawyers tell Spear’s that there is a risk the current debate on SLAPPs is being overblown in the UK media.
For one thing, there are only small numbers of cases occurring in England and Wales that have been identified as SLAPPs, with the NGO Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe estimating that there were only 14 in 2021.
Writing for Spear’s earlier this year, Simkins reputation lawyer Gideon Benaim said such lawsuits were difficult to pin down, with no ‘official definition of what a SLAPP is’, and that claimant lawyers were ‘routinely portrayed in the media as villains, apparently lacking professional and moral judgement’.
He also warned about the risks facing individuals in the public eye if they are unable to adequately defend their reputations. ‘[The government] needs to carefully balance the various competing legal rights, including access to justice and the right to a reputation,’ Benaim wrote. ‘A person’s reputation can be hard earned over decades, but all too easily damaged quickly. This is all the more true in a world where information travels around the globe in an instant, and yet can remain forever.’
The Simkins lawyer’s efforts to raise awareness of the potential pitfalls of overzealous legislation around SLAPPs led to him being recognised as Reputation Lawyer of the Year at the Spear’s Awards 2023. While our judges were ‘surprised that so few people have taken a public stand,’ they noted that Benaim ‘was a notable exception’.
‘It is important to stand up to what is a severe attack on the freedom of those with reputations to be able to protect them. It is a genuine afront to constitutional principles and the work he has done on it is highly relevant,’ one judge added.
The year of armchair reputation experts
While many HNW celebrities found they had the agency to tell their own stories in 2023, the year has also seen members of the general public enter into the discourse around their favourite celebrities.
‘2023 [was] the year that the public found that they had agency to define people’s reputation on social media,’ reputation management expert and TikToker Molly McPherson tells Spear’s.
McPherson, who has made a name for herself on the platform, using her PR nous to break down celebrity mishaps, says the new digital technology allows there to be ‘plenty of people who are going to research and investigate’ what happens ‘behind the scenes’.
As ever, many significant reputation battles played out in courtrooms on both sides of the Atlantic in the field of reputation management in 2023. In December, a British High Court judge awarded Prince Harry £140,600 after it ruled he was the victim of phone hacking by Mirror Group journalists. Mr Justice Fancourt found that 15 of 33 news articles complained about by Prince Harry had been obtained either through phone hacking or other unlawful means.
Also this month, a federal jury in Washington said American lawyer Rudy Giuliani must pay $148 million in damages to two Georgia election workers, whom he claimed had tried to steal votes from Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.