Having a pop at independent schools seems to be very much in vogue for the mainstream media at present. Combined with the ease with which any member of the public can now post comments in social media and online, managing your reputation is becoming an increasingly onerous task in the sector.
It is now almost expected that an internet forum will feature gratuitous abuse from an online 'troll' and, understandably, resolving these issues gets more complicated when the damage is caused by someone who has hidden their identity.
If your school is unlucky enough to be targeted, rest assured that you are not alone. The very nature of these issues, mean that it is rare for others to share their experience: a happy outcome when a school's reputation is at stake is normally one which does not draw outside attention and often includes reciprocal obligations of confidentiality.
While there is no way of avoiding potential exposure, the aim of this article is to increase schools' awareness of the issues, to facilitate forward planning and to help minimise the risk of reputational damage, disruption and cost.
A wide range of disputes and regulatory issues will involve a need for reputation management at the same time. For example:
We are frequently asked to advise on claims relating to comments made by disgruntled staff, pupils (current and former) and/or parents whether verbally, in writing or in the media.
Sometimes these will relate to offensive comments about the school - for instance in social media or online review sites; on other occasions the comments may relate to staff, other pupils or third parties, with the school potentially being on the hook as the comments were made in a school-related publication, such as on a webpage or forum allowing user generated content. In these instances, swift action on first becoming aware of an issue can avoid liability altogether.
Defamatory statements also come up in press coverage - such as in relation to the current spate of historic abuse allegations. Dealing with press queries can be a minefield of data protection/confidentiality issues and are often required under considerable time pressure.
Caution needs to be taken when communicating with third parties in relation to anything to do with pupil, parent or staff data. The problems are not limited to accidental disclosure by schools. Issues can include pupils making disclosures about other pupils (or staff); parents getting hold of and misusing confidential information including mailing lists; and dealing with/clarifying misleading statements made by a pupil in university applications.
Given the huge brand value associated with independent schools, it is no surprise that schools can be targeted by infringers. In a recent instance, a client found prospective parents being drawn to a rogue site which had been registered with an identical domain name, save that 'Grammar' had been spelt 'Grammer': clearly a common misspelling and an opportunity seized upon by the infringer.
Incidents of this nature usually involve a balancing act. Regardless of technical legal arguments or indeed the accuracy of any rumours, many are concerned of the risk posed by a 'no smoke without fire' mentality and we encourage quick action to discretely limit the impact with this in mind.
An early assessment should be made as to whether the statement(s) or behaviour complained of would be better dealt with by the relevant prosecuting authorities as a criminal matter. The driving factor will generally be the remedy sought: for instance, action by the police is unlikely to result in a defamatory webpage being taken down within a short period of time, but given that police involvement is likely to involve significantly less cost, budget is also an important consideration here.
On some occasions, prosecution resources are not available to pursue the matter: particularly where the offender's identity is hidden.
Typically, civil action will have three elements:
However, the location of the other party is likely to have a significant impact on their response. Hosts in the US tend to be more defensive of freedom of speech than Europeans, given that the concept has been part of their Constitution since the First Amendment in 1791.
Often looking at online footprints, such as reverse ISP lookups or internet searches for previous uses of usernames, can be helpful. In one instance, I uncovered the identity of a serious harasser through him having used the same username on a dating site years before, where his photograph and location remained freely available online.
Published in Independent Education Today September 2015.
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