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Guardians of Reputation: PR strategies for ethical content sharing and copyright compliance in the ESG era

Photo of Narda Shirley

Narda Shirley, Co-Founder of The Wilful Group, discusses the importance of copyright and respecting IP in an industry where work revolves around content sharing, touching on the importance of copyright compliance and how it fits with ESG frameworks.

Whether or not ESG – environmental, social and governance policies and reporting – are on your radar as a PR and communications professional, the chances are that if you work for any listed corporations, it’s something that matters very much to them.

Anyone who works in corporate and financial PR will be more than familiar with ESG, as it’s fair to say it’s had quite a busy year. For anyone who is less au fait, ESG data collection and reporting is the main way in which investors keep tabs on how companies show up in the world; it conveys a more rounded picture than financial results alone.

ESG and storytelling

ESG reporting helps stakeholders understand how companies are acting on climate and society. It helps establish whether companies are measuring and reducing their carbon dioxide emissions for example.  If they are producers or processors, it looks at how they are managing their supply chains and waste streams and whether they are trying to be more circular in their business models.  It asks how they contribute to the communities in which they operate? How diverse is their Board? Is their culture inclusive? How do they help tackle societal issues that might be relevant for their core business? How do they treat suppliers? It basically adds up to the story of how ethical they are.

A comprehensive ESG report needs data and proof points to be credible. But increasingly companies are reporting on their activities beyond mandatory minimum levels by also telling the stories of how they are behaving as good corporate citizens.  This all helps to nurture corporate reputation beyond the balance sheet and has become an essential element of corporate communications best practice.

Good Governance

The E of ESG is quite clearly climate, biodiversity, and things like plastic pollution in the ocean. S covers society and all people matters, like how well the workforce is treated or building community resources like schools and playgrounds. But the governance pillar is less obvious. Governance is the oversight of how the business is run. It covers the profile of leadership and whether there are appropriate strategies in place to identify and mitigate risk. Good governance in theory means that organisations have the kind of culture, checks and balances that enable challenges to be made. One important tenet of governance is that with enough diversity around the table, the leadership will avoid groupthink and be able to see the whole range of different risks and act on them as a result of different perspectives. Often that also means seeking the input of consultants and advisors.

Do the (Copy) Right thing 

An established yet rapidly evolving area of information governance that PR professionals can help clients to get out in front of involves use of material that is subject to copyright. PR agencies have always had to have a licence from CLA to cover their own internal use of material that is subject to copyright.

To take away any guesswork around good governance of copying and sharing material, CLA also offers the Media Consultancy Licence (MCL) for PR and media agencies. As well as the coverage for the internal copying and reuse that comes with the main CLA Business Licence, the Media Consultancy Licence covers external supply, making sure that clients are covered when they receive material from the agency.

Covering a wide range of content delivered digitally including copies of articles via email, and web links, the Media Consultancy Licence can be tailored to the usage profile of an individual agency, with pricing that varies according to the number of clippings that are being shared annually. It not only provides clients with peace of mind, but simplifies compliance with UK copyright laws while also supporting creatives, making it a valuable addition to any risk mitigation policies.

Valuing creativity 

It’s easy to forget that content belongs to its creators, especially if it’s provided freely for some uses. The rapid proliferation of generative AI and various governments’ attempts to control its ethical development and operation are a stark reminder that human creativity and the rights of content creators are precious.

AI firms are training their large language models on content without asking permission or offering compensation to the rights holders. This has the creative community up in arms.

In December, the UK Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) published new research into AI among its ecosystem of authors, photographers, publishers and visual artists.

The research (which in full transparency, we worked on) features interviews with leading voices including author Joanne Harris and photographer, Tim Flach who shared their concerns about protecting and also being able to discern and incentivise human creativity.

Ethics and ESG

So often in agencies, we take our creative cues from popular culture, from art, music, creative writing and from published research to help spark inspiration.

Operating as part of a wider creative eco-system, where sometimes we are creating, and sometimes we are copying, it feels right that we play our part in ensuring that content originators are fairly compensated when their work helps us to do ours.

The same system of copyright law that we are relying on to swing into action to help protect creative livelihoods from ‘bad actors’ in AI is already in operation and covering more prosaic content uses like forwarding magazine articles including images to clients.

The current focus on ESG and new requirements to think about ‘double materiality’ in CSRD reporting, which is coming into force in the EU, is helping us think harder about the effects our businesses have on the world around us. While we might not as PR people be directly responsible for environmental degradation, how we behave as corporate citizens can have a big effect on the companies and the people we interact with and whose outputs we consume.

Reputation Risk 

Much like the current fears around being called out for greenwashing, the flip side of being properly licensed to copy and share content is an increasingly risky place to be reputationally. If we know about the imperative to be properly licensed and choose to ignore it, that’s a precarious position that risks being untenable for any agency and its clients who want to be seen to be acting ethically.

Indeed IP lawyers advise that negative publicity is an important consequence for those engaged in blameworthy IP infringement. They regularly seek and secure publicity orders under the Intellectual Property (Enforcement, etc.) Regulations 2006 which enable their clients to communicate to the market that they take protection of their rights seriously and, in the process “name and shame” those who have sought to misuse IP without payment.

The Media Consultancy Licence bolt-on to CLA’s Business Licence is therefore an opportunity to extend legal compliance to clients for the material we share from research, books and magazines with clear guidance as to what is covered and why they need their own licence to share the content beyond the agency’s main point of contact.

If we are trusted by our clients to help protect their reputations, then helping them do the right thing in terms of understanding copyright licensing is surely part of our duty of care?


Support your clients

The Media Consultancy Licence is there to help guard your clients’ reputations and maintain your professional integrity.

To support you and your clients, we have created some guidelines for your clients on what they can do with their media cuttings made under the CLA licence:

Client Guidelines