This week’s blog is brought to you by our legal experts, Veale Wasbrough Vizards (VWV).
In a world of social media, it is incredibly easy for disgruntled pupils, parents or ex-staff members to make their feelings heard. At VWV, we regularly encounter schools facing issues on this front. The aim for the school is usually to close the issue down without drawing further attention to what is being said, which is often unfounded abuse; so, understandably, it is not something that tends to be discussed. It is, however, helpful to be aware of typical scenarios to minimise the impact on the reputation of your school and its staff should you be targeted.
One of the most common issues we come across is abusive comments being made through Facebook, Twitter, review sites, such as Google Review or Rate My Teacher, and by ‘old-fashioned’ email. If the abuse is serious enough, the best course of action is often to involve the police (and, if there are any pupil safeguarding concerns, liaise with the Local Authority Designated Officer). Police resource is limited and, understandably, they need to prioritise the most serious cases, although recent media coverage, including on the BBC, suggests that more attention is being paid to online abuse.
To claim or not to claim?
Even where the police are unable to assist, our clients often find it empowering to consider civil claims that are available. Claims that can be brought against online abusers include:
- Defamation – where comments damaging to the reputation of the school or a teacher have been published.
- Harassment – if a member of staff is being targeted through a negative campaign.
- Intellectual property infringements – use of school photographs without the owner’s consent.
- Data protection – if an individual’s data (such as a teacher’s home address) is being publicised without their consent or good reason.
The civil courts have the power to order injunctions (orders requiring someone to stop doing something) and damages to compensate for any loss suffered.
The best course of action will be dictated by the circumstances. Clearly issuing a claim is not necessarily going to be the best way forward to minimise the impact of any reputational damage, as it may draw more attention to the issue, and often the abusing ‘trolls’ will relish in the opportunity for a public battle. Simply ignoring it might be the best way forward, depending on the severity of the issue. A positive PR campaign may also be the best option.
The author of the offensive content will usually have the power to remove what they have posted. If they have posted it knowingly, they will often refuse to listen to reason in relation to its removal. If that is the case, and seeking a court order for the removal is not attractive, an alternative strategy can be adopted. It can, therefore, be more effective to approach the third party host to get unwanted online content removed:
- Social media websites and forums will often have a ‘report abuse’ function. There is a wide range in how effectively and efficiently these functions are dealt with. It can, however, be an inexpensive way of removing content.
- If this option is not available, contact can usually still be made with the host. Many blogging and social media platforms are hosted in the United States. It can, therefore, be helpful to ‘speak their language’ by pointing out breaches of their own terms, particularly given the heavier focus on protecting free speech (almost regardless of its content).
There are a number of interesting articles on the psychology of those who verbally abuse and bully others online, using the shield of anonymity to make comments they would not want attributed to them by name. Trolls will often hide their identity. Uncovering that identity can be the key to stopping the comments and the damage to reputation.
Chances are, where a school or a teacher is a target, the perpetrator will be someone you know, but narrowing it down is not always easy. The troll may have left helpful clues along the way, unintentionally, in the content or metadata of their messages: perhaps an IP address, a reflection in a photograph or previous use of the same username.
Third parties can also be a valuable source of information. Clearly they are not going to be able to simply give up the information (for fear of breaching confidentiality obligations themselves), but usually they will not object to a court order being sought against them requiring them to hand over information. The process for carrying this out can be relatively straightforward – and if successful, can unlock the ability of the police to take further action.
It is always important for a school to consider whether an incident will need to be reported as a serious incident, for example to the EFA or the DfE, which can include circumstances giving rise to a risk of reputation damage.
It is also worth considering whether the school has insurance cover, both for loss suffered by reputational damage and also legal costs associated (which can become prohibitive).
If a situation like the ones described above hits your school, be prepared and don’t panic:
- Coordinate the team:
- Seek to have one point of contact and a consistent message.
- Consider the make-up of the core team. Try to avoid including people personally referred to, to ensure an objective approach to decisions.
- Ensure that the appropriate staff are informed that they should not make impromptu statements to the press, and should direct all such enquiries to certain nominated persons so that any media response can be coordinated.
- It is reasonably likely that the press will contact you for comment:
- Prepare an initial draft statement at an early stage, which will help to save time in these situations and will make you feel more comfortable in dealing with time-sensitive enquiries.
- Initial press statements are normally succinct and bland for a reason. Do not feel that you need to elaborate but also try to avoid saying ‘no comment’ as this may appear defensive.
- Ensure that you do not breach any laws or rules in communicating on the matter, and in particular, avoid making defamatory remarks or breaching data protection rules.
- It may also be helpful to consider whether specialist PR advice can assist in these circumstances or in circumstances where the school becomes the subject of media scrutiny, e.g. because of allegations of historic abuse.
- Check that the school has appropriate social media policies making the outcome of failure to comply serious.
- Ensure that any necessary reports are made e.g. to regulators and insurers.
If you would like further advice on the issues raised, please contact Ben Holt on 0117 314 5478 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.