Strumpette Blast: Is Steve Rubel a ‘Public Figure’ Under the Law?

If you are a new PR blog in town, there are a few easy ways to attract attention and build your Technorati profile:Steve

1)    Put up a semi-naked photo yourself

2)    Talk about your personal sex habits

3)    Take a shot at Steve Rubel

Congratulations to the Strumpette, who did all three in an inaugural post that gave the PR blogosphere something to do on Sunday besides watch basketball and catch up on ten hours worth of Hobson & Holtz Reports. Although I thought the post and comments were fun and entertaining overall, they also raised an important question: Is Steve Rubel a “public figure,” and if so, is there a line that should not be crossed? I’m not saying Strumpette or anyone else has crossed it, but what if it happens someday?

According to ExpertLaw.Com, the definition of a “public figure” is broader than celebrities and politicians. “A person can become an involuntary public figure’ as the result of publicity, even though that person did not want or invite the public attention,” the site says. Of course, Steve and other bloggers do invite attention – but they still may have some rights under the law. Read on:

“A person can also become a ‘limited public figure’ by engaging in actions which generate publicity within a narrow area of interest,” according to Expert Law. “For example, a woman named Terry Rakolta was offended by the Fox Television show, Married With Children, and wrote letters to the show’s advertisers to try to get them to stop their support for the show. As a result of her actions, Ms. Rakolta became the target of jokes in a wide variety of settings. As these jokes remained within the confines of her public conduct, typically making fun of her as being prudish or censorious, they were protected by Ms. Rakolta’s status as a ‘limited public figure.’”

A 2005 Wired News article supports this line of reasoning in citing a Florida case, where a judge ruled that a local woman was a “public figure” because she had been subject to “substantial” Internet debate.

"It’s sort of judicial recognition of the importance of internet news," George Gabel, a Florida media attorney, said in the Wired article. "It shows the power of individuals on the internet."

I’m sure Steve has a thick skin and the ruckus over the weekend probably didn’t cause him to lose any sleep. Nevertheless, if there is a line to be crossed, someone will cross it – and the person on the receiving end may not forgive as easily or without a legal fight.





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23 Responses to Strumpette Blast: Is Steve Rubel a ‘Public Figure’ Under the Law?

  1. John Wagner says:

    Gary:
    Surely you’re not feeling sorry for SR, are you?

  2. Gary, good post on something that really matters from all of this.
    John, ask yourself … is anyone really deserving of anonymous attacks? I don’t think so.

  3. John Wagner says:

    Robert:
    I guess I feel strongly both ways.
    If it were me, I’d wouldn’t be too happy.
    On the other hand, SR has spent a considerable amount of time and energy working to become a “blogging celebrity.” And he continually accepts speaking engagements and interview requests where he represents the PR profession.
    So in that regard, he has made himself a public figure in PR and in PR blogging.
    In the limited circle of the blogosphere, he wields a lot of influence, and his hiring was touted as another sign of Edelman “getting it,” whatever that means. So if there is public speculation over his role there, it’s a natural offshoot of the very public PR campaign that proceeded and followed his hiring.
    There is always a downside to being so visible, and this is one of those instances.
    And frankly, a lot of the issues that Strumpette wrote about — the complications of a star blogger working for a big agency — are things all of us have talked about at one time or another (just not as boldly).

  4. I agree- anonymous shots at Rubel’s character SHOULD be considered below the belt. Nonetheless, we live in a society where the code of ethics for humor is “if it’s funny, then it’s not offensive.” I really liked your “how to attract attention” list. Very insightful.

  5. It’s not the potshots that are the problem. SR is a big boy and I’m sure he can handle it. And I like snark. Have been known to write a snarky post myself from time to time.
    What turns me off here? Three things. First, the anonymity. Take your shots in public, please. Second, take a shot at an a-lister, fine, but make it about something of substance. A fake office pool on when he might “separate” from his employer? Not so interesting to me. Others may like gossip. To each his/her own.
    And finally, the persona. Not a terribly positive image of professional women, and forgive me for stating what should be obvipus, guys (and I mean that deliberately), but women DO care about that. And men should too.

  6. John Wagner says:

    Sorry, Susan. *hangs head in shame.*

  7. John Wagner says:

    Sorry, Susan. *hangs head in shame.*

  8. John, in these situations, I tend to feel more sorry for the person doing the attacking than the person being attacked. Nevertheless, I posed the question not because of my feelings one way or the other about Steve, but because I thought it was an interesting question — and one which I have heard brought up by clients more than once. Fear of being “attacked” is a big deterrent to companies, especially CEOs, entering the blogosphere, so I just feel this is something we should think about as blogs become more ubiquitous.

  9. John Wagner says:

    Gary … I see your point, and I agree. A company that decides to blog is entering uncharted waters in terms of being attacked.
    Despite what the blogists says, it’s ALWAYS easier to sit quietly by and not do anything to attract undue attention. That’s the main reason that more companies aren’t “opening themselves up” to conversations — despite the value that we see there.
    I was just looking at the whole thing as a lark … something fun that might take on some of the “sacred cows” of PR.

  10. You’re forgiven John.
    And to Gary’s point: I think we all need to be aware (A or z lister) that when we post, we are making a public statement. And we are just as liable to be a target. That is why it is so important that criticism have substance, and in my opinion, attribution.

  11. Steve Rubel says:

    Interesting discussion. Here’s how I look at it (remember me, the defendant?).
    I am a public figure – for now. With it, comes potshots. Some legit, others not. I have learned not to focus a lot of time on it. I do my thing. This is why I don’t engage with J-Pep. He’s always carrying a hockey stick. He loves to comment on every blog where I am mentioned and will until I am “toppled” or dead. That’s the way it will be and it’s meaningless to engage him.
    Instead, I spend most of my time thinking about what all this means for the profession, blogging about it and serving clients. If people get tired of me and my blog they will unsubscribe. If the press tires of talking to me, they will shop elsewhere. I don’t worry about it. I do, however, worry about our profession and blog about it, potshots and all.

  12. Steve Rubel says:

    Interesting discussion. Here’s how I look at it (remember me, the defendant?).
    I am a public figure – for now. With it, comes potshots. Some legit, others not. I have learned not to focus a lot of time on it. I do my thing. This is why I don’t engage with J-Pep. He’s always carrying a hockey stick. He loves to comment on every blog where I am mentioned and will until I am “toppled” or dead. That’s the way it will be and it’s meaningless to engage him.
    Instead, I spend most of my time thinking about what all this means for the profession, blogging about it and serving clients. If people get tired of me and my blog they will unsubscribe. If the press tires of talking to me, they will shop elsewhere. I don’t worry about it. I do, however, worry about our profession and blog about it, potshots and all.

  13. John Wagner says:

    Steve, you have the right attitude about all this … it’s a side effect of being visible. You don’t have to like it, but there’s only so much value to be gained by participating.
    The situation is not much different than what clients face when snarky bloggers take potshots at their products, service or advertising. Sometimes, engaging the critics only makes them bolder.

  14. Gary,
    I’m glad to see another person taking this seriously.

  15. Keith R. Pillow says:

    One of the unfortunate byproducts of working in the public relations sector — and I stress the world “public” — is that professionals, such as Steve, often end up as unlikely targets. This is particularly true for high-profile practitioners (think of the White House spokesperson). Nevertheless, it is good to know that Steve has a thick skin. I believe we can all learn a great deal from his moderate, and thoughtful, reaction to all of this…

  16. Keith R. Pillow says:

    One of the unfortunate byproducts of working in the public relations sector — and I stress the world “public” — is that professionals, such as Steve, often end up as unlikely targets. This is particularly true for high-profile practitioners (think of the White House spokesperson). Nevertheless, it is good to know that Steve has a thick skin. I believe we can all learn a great deal from his moderate, and thoughtful, reaction to all of this…

  17. Steve may be more visible than others, but no one should forget that the only truly private thought is the one not uttered. And we put ourselves in the public sphere the minute we speak aloud and certainly when we hit “post.” Just because your blog has 100 readers versus 1 or 2K doesn’t make your post any less public, or any less of a target. In effect, we are all public figures to one degree or another.

  18. Mark Cuban’s Lessons for Revolutionaries

    Regulars here know that I am a huge Mark Cuban fan. After I scanned all the chatter about Strumpette and his/her ridiculous and faceless prediction that I will not last in my new job, as an antidote I spent an

  19. Wrote about the same issues a while ago – libel and blogs. It’s an interesting one, and one that we likely won’t hammer out on one post.
    As for Strumpette, it’s already played out. I haven’t written a post about it yet, and have plans to on the flip-side of it and the expose taking place – but, there are bigger PR issues out there than blog navel gazing.

  20. Jeremy, thanks for that link — great piece and insights into what is an important issue. It made me think of Blogburst, and what may happen if a newspaper publishes something from a blogger that is libelous — can the paper then be sued? Only in America, I suppose 🙂

  21. Gregory Kohs says:

    My personal interaction with the Strumpy character (whoever she/he/it is) involved a few pointedly-worded YET CIVIL e-mails to “her”, then a blog post of mine (which I thought aptly made my point about copyright infringement), which was promptly followed by an e-mail threat from “her/him/it”, saying that my employer’s legal counsel would be contacted this morning. So far, it’s 6:00 PM, and I haven’t heard anything from the front office.
    I guess when you press the right buttons, the Strumpette turns into a litigious little child. Oh well. I’m glad she/he/it is so quickly burning out as a joke/hoax/waste of our time.

  22. toothpick_tp says:

    Frankly speaking, nobody knows the exact definition of “public figure”. There are different variants of this phrase. Nevertheless, being a public figure is not an easy matter, as your life is in the limelight and you can conceal nothing.

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