We write a lot about clumsy legal threats that trigger the Streisand Effect. As in real life, in which nobody listens to me, most would-be legal threateners ignore my suggestions about how to avoid triggering the Streisand Effect.
However, occasionally you'll see an example of the right way to handle a legal threat — or the right way to refrain from making one entirely.
First, take Jack Daniels. Faced with a book cover that seems to appropriate its trade dress, Jack Daniels could have responded with a threatening stop-or-we'll-sue letter. Instead, they responded with a understated and rather polite letter explaining why Jack Daniels has to protect its trademark and asking that the author either change the cover on the next edition or accept compensation for changing it on this edition. The letter comes off as so eminently courteous and reasonable that it makes me want to buy a bottle of Jack, and the author comes off looking somehow less classy in comparison. Well played, Jack Daniels. (Tip from multiple folks.)
Second, take Shell. Shell was the target of a clever, well-executed, and multi-stage hoax by the Yes Men, a group that impersonates people and companies in order to satirize them. The caper involved a fake catastrophic press conference that initially fooled the difficult-to-fool Beschizza, fake legal threats from a fake Shell account that temporarily fooled the also-difficult-to-fool Cory Doctorow, and a sharply satirical fake Shell-operations-in-the-Arctic web page. A few people are reacting with pro-Shell anti-Greenpeace outrage. For myself, with respect to Rob and Cory, I thought that the Shell twitter account was satirical within a minute or two, and the whole thing strikes me as classic social commentary that is sufficiently clearly satirical to avoid any defamation or accusations of actionable dishonesty.
But the Yes Men's skill at elaborate satire was no match for Shell's appropriate pose. Shell's response is pitch-perfect:
Journalists, blog readers and YouTube viewers have recently been targeted with scams launched by organizations opposed to energy exploration in Alaska. A contest on a mock Shell website promotes the creation of fake advertisements. A video purports to show a bungled corporate PR event at the Seattle Space Needle. And a false press release claimed that the company is considering legal action against the scam campaign.
Just in case there is any remaining doubt, Shell did not host, nor participate in an event at the Space Needle. The video does not involve Shell or any of its employees. The advertising contest is not associated with Shell, and neither is the site it’s on. And Shell did not file legal action in this matter. Our focus is on safely executing our operations.
Further, we care that people are not deceived; and in the spirit of intelligent debate on such a serious topic, we continue to offer our own (genuine) views as well as a few real facts about the challenges and opportunities of arctic exploration at www.shell.us/alaska.
Take-the-high-road tone, mild head-shaking rebuke of the satirists without excessive rhetoric, disavowal of legal threats, pointer towards their side of the story, let's-focus-on-the-real-issues deflection — it's perfect. Shell could have reacted with purple prose or threats or excessive victimhood, all of which would have driven more eyes to the Yes Men satire. This response avoids prolonging the story for more news cycles, and makes them look professional. That's some mature legal and public relations decision-making. (Tip from multiple sources; idea for the the-right-way-to-do-it frame from commenter Nicholas Weaver, who invites you to check your network at a site he runs.)
See? Take a deep breath, get a grip, and respond better to online content you don't like.