Journalists hate owning up to making mistakes, and given the number of stories delivered day-in-day-out it happens relatively rarely. But it happens. And the more pressure placed on journalists by their bosses to deliver on volume, the more mistakes – simply because of the less time available to check facts.
One of the related problems is that journalists are often unaware of the impact of their stories. For instance, as those who practise Crisis PR will be aware, on controversial issues politicians expect companies or organisations to deliver community support. In the absence of better information (such as a survey) community support equates to media ‘support’. If that fails, so can the project, regardless of merit. So all it takes is for a journalist to repeatedly misunderstand an issue and continuously misrepresent community sentiment…… it can be incredibly damaging.
What do we do when we a journalist is continuing to make a serious mistake?
1. Get an independent opinion. The closer you are to a story, the less objective you are. It may not be the damaging story you think it is.
2. Meet with the reporter. And do the research the journalist didn’t do, and present it to the journo. Most reporters are willing to change the angle if they can see they had the facts wrong first time around.
3. Speak to the editor. if (2) fails, take the issue upstairs. Don’t get angry, just state your case backed up with facts. Editors are used to journalists making mistakes, some more than others. No editor that I have met likes to publish a story that is factually incorrect. No editor that I know likes to swim against community sentiment. Again, just state the facts; don’t ask the editor to pan the journalist – that is unlikely to happen.
4. Write a response. Ask the paper to accept a letter to the editor (150-200 words) or opinion piece (~400 words). In it don’t be harsh on the journalist or paper for the mistakes the first time around (it’s unlikely to see the light of day) – just state the case, with hard facts.
5. Use lawyers. This takes an experienced public relations practitioner, because it can spin out of control. If time is against you, and depending which country you are working in (laws vary), engage a media lawyer to point out the damage the publication is doing, and the laws that are being broken. These days editors are on tight budgets and will not knowingly reprint an inaccuracy, if the paper’s counsel has become involved in the dispute and there is the threat of a court action. BTW – the editor will not like you for this tactic.
6. Use social media. At the same time as the above, use your blog (yes, you should have one) and Twitter to state your case. Twitter is valuable at the moment because journalists use it to communicate with their audiences and each other. This will change soon, but right now you are talking in their medium (Facebook is also an option as is a media release posted on your website (not so good)).
7. Work with a competing publication. If you can’t get sense or logic out of the publication making the mistakes, go to the competition. Often, not always, the other guy will delight in pointing out the correct story. Suburban papers and tabloid TV tends to like this option.
8. Written statements only. At the same time, if you can’t get sense out of the rogue publication, issue the journalist with statements only – each statement with your key message, but tailored to fit the story (so no more than ~25 words). The journalist may write what he/she wants, but will be hard pressed not to print the only quote you have supplied. This is a well used tactic in Crisis PR.
9. Refuse to deal with the publication. This is the point of last resort for a public relations practitioner with media experience. We make two points on this:
a: In newspapers it should get to this very rarely. It’s written here because many companies are tempted or advised to make this the second and final stage above. In our experience that is wrong. Don’t freeze out journalists for one or two mistakes. With newspapers I’ve only been in this situation a couple of times, and on those occasions it is mostly a series of unfortunate mistakes in the relationship with the paper and as much (or more) the companies fault, as the journalist’s.
b: With tacky tabloid TV this does become an option, because sometimes TV simply puts ratings ahead of the facts – pure and simple. But make it a final option, after going through the process above.
Relationships with journalists are going to become less important with the advent of citizen journalism / social media. But at the high end of public relations it is still going to be critical. Newspapers, radio and TV are here to stay, and so is the craft of investigative journalism. For that reason we advise our clients to make the investment in getting relationships right – it pays off.