By Elizabeth Flaherty, Managing Director, Wavelength Public Relations.

In today’s world of litigation, it continues to surprise us that organisations do not have adequate release forms or procedures for media, be it photography for a brochure, an interview with a television news crew or social media post. Many organisations have a media release form, sitting in a file on a shelf somewhere, but typically it is not enough to protect them from litigation or reputational damage.


CASE ONE – Legally sound, but damaging


The paddock filmed may have met legal requirements, but not community standards.

A recent public example of an issue with media consent was a television advertisement which caused concern among local farmers, who claimed a Company had filmed on their land without permission: ABC Reports.

While the footage may have been shot from the side of the road, without entering property, therefore not requiring legal consent; imagine being a farmer and seeing your front paddock in a television commercial that infers coal seam gas activities are occurring on your land.

While there may have been no legal requirement to obtain consent to film, the filming was a costly exercise resulting in reputational damage to the Company and negative relations with local farmers, so the ad was wisely pulled.

Wavelength Advice:
Proper pre-production planning and a recee of locations should have identified this risk; but don’t rely on a production company or advertising agency to identify public relations risks and provide reputational advice to protect your organisation.

Ensure the public relations advice you seek is from a professional who has worked in television, or has a wealth of experience working with television; don’t assume a former newspaper journalist turned PR practitioner fits the bill for providing advice on filming protocols.


CASE TWO – A release form that created risk

A childcare centre had a release form, signed off by their legal advisors; Childcarebut the form didn’t protect them, in fact it opened them to the possibility of more litigation.

Issues with the release form included:

  • too many options – the participant could choose from five different types of consent, for every time an image was taken. When you consider there were more than 60 children at the centre, keeping track of each photo and all of the forms becomes too complex and mistakes will occur;
  • requiring consent twice for photos appearing in the media;
  • consent does not include various mediums, such as websites, social media, video or audio;
  • no stipulation for ownership or rights, and
  • no reference to use by third parties.

Wavelength Advice:
Ensure your media consent is sound, by passing it by both legal and public relations professionals, who are experienced in media management.


CASE THREE – The release form may be sound, but the advice may be misleadingCaution

In the same childcare organisation I observed the director of the service tell a parent:
* she would guarantee their child’s image would not go on the internet;
* she would be able to sign-off on any photograph to be used in the media, prior to it being published and
* they would not give it to any third parties “like it ends up with a paedophile or something”.

Our advice to the parent was that once an image of her child was taken, it was impossible to say where it could be reproduced later. If she was in anyway uncomfortable with that, she should not consent to her child being photographed in any capacity. After a short discussion with the parent, about potential risks and realities of modern media, she did consent to her child being photographed, for any purpose. Crucially she consented with a proper understanding of what could happen in the digital age. While these discussions can be confronting, they are needed for proper consent and your staff need to do this properly or you will be open to litigation or reputational damage.

Wavelength Advice:
Ensure your staff don’t make promises your company can’t keep. Your staff need to be trained in all of your policies and procedures. Make sure your employees responsible for obtaining media consent are properly trained.


PatientConsentCASE FOUR – Can the participant give consent?

Even when there is consent, it is important to ensure the person is in a condition to consent.

In hospitals, we would regularly help the blood bank find patients who could retell how a blood donation made a difference to their life. In one case hospital staff identified a patient, who had sustained burns during an accident in a kitchen, to speak to the media. The nurses said the patient had consented and confirmed they were not impaired by anaesthesia or medications, but first I wanted to speak with them to properly brief them on what to expect.

They seemed relaxed about the media activity and were happy to help, but something did not sit right; I expressed my concern to the head of the unit, who said my feeling was right as the burns had resulted from self-harm. We did not proceed with the activity.

Similarly obtaining consent for children can be problematic. One parent may sign consent, but if there are custody issues, that consent can be challenged by the other parent.

Wavelength Advice:
Don’t be afraid to ask questions to qualify consent. There are complexities in gaining consent, which can’t always be placed into a process, procedure or flow chart, so we recommend seeking advice from a public relations professional with experience in media management.


Policies for staff consent

Many organisations don’t consider proper written consent from staff and subcontractors for promotional activities. Smart organisations obtain staff consent when they start with the organisation; it is a much simpler and clearer process than case-by-case consent.


What are the main things to consider with release forms?:

* Do you have one?Policy
* Is it current for new media?
* Does it make promises you can’t keep?
* Is it simple or is there too much devil in the detail?
* Is it one page that can be easily read and understood by the person consenting?
* Do you have experienced staff who can explain what participation will involve, possible risks and ensure informed consent?
* Has your form, policy and procedures been reviewed recently by legal?
* Has your form, policy and procedures been reviewed recently by a public relations professional?
* Do your staff and subcontractors sign written media consent before beginning work with your organisation?