Statutorily required notice goes by a number of different names. There’s “public notice”, of course. “Legal notice” is a big one. “Legal ads” is also used quite often. And then there’s plain old “legals”, as in “the legals”.

Ask someone in the newspaper business what they’re called and you may get any one of those answers. Ask someone outside the newspaper business the same question and the response is likely to be, “Huh?”

There are a number of reasons for the public confusion over public notice advertising, including the fact that we in the newspaper industry can’t agree on a name for them. Branding 101 would suggest that’s a problem.

Of course, it’s not all our fault. Legislators have played a role in this. The general statutes of Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and many other states refer to them as “legal notices.” The laws in California, South Dakota and Oregon call them “public notices”. Some state statutes, like Massachusetts, refer to them as both.

Our policy at the Public Notice Resource Center is as follows:

1. For the sake of clarity, the newspaper business should settle on one name; and

2. For branding purposes, that name should be “public notice”

Why is “public notice” preferable to “legal notice” or “legal ads”? Because the word "public" has positive connotations. The word "legal”, on the other hand, is a mixed bag.

“Public notices” sound like a civic good. They're about notifying the public. Who can be against notifying the public?

By contrast, “legal notices” sound kind of scary. Like someone did something wrong and needs to be told about it.

Consider the advertisement posted to the right. Despite what it says at the top, it is not a public notice. It's a used-car ad. But the words “public notice” are so powerful that this auto dealer decided to use them to get people to pay attention to his used-car sale. Aside perhaps from that Nigerian prince who keeps emailing all of us, it’s impossible to imagine someone doing the same thing with the words “legal notice”.

From an advocacy and framing perspective, the words “public notice” are a gift. Let’s use them precisely as they have been gifted to us. So: When you talk about them. When you publish them in your newspaper. When you post a link to them on your website. Please call them “public notices”.

Reprinted with permission from the Public Notice Resource Center.