Mondays are tough in the newsroom:
Back when I had the good fortune to work as the ombudsman for The Toronto Star, one of the country’s largest daily newspapers, I used to find Monday mornings a real – well – challenge.
That’s because invariably on Mondays I’d find messages from well-meaning and sincere organizers of weekend fundraisers who were upset because they felt their event had not been covered accurately.
These events were big deals to them:
Often they’d spent a great deal of time and money and even hired a pr agency to get their message across. The speeches their leaders gave were milestones in their agencies.
It’s not that journalists don’t care:
But from my more than 20 years as a working journalist, editor and manager I also recall how hard journalists tried to get things right. Very often a journalist dropped in to cover a weekend event, but as one of many on a weekend when the paper was already lightly staffed, they often had to leave before it ended to make a deadline. I know how that can happen because earlier in my career I was that journalist juggling weekend assignments.
The organizers who complained had spent months planning, with pr agency handouts and media kits ready, hoping their event would be the highlight of their year. And even if the coverage was technically accurate, some organizers felt the coverage was off the mark, especially if only part of a speech was included.
Don’t get me started about quotes:
Or if the reporter used quotes from an interview with, say, the executive director, given after he or she gave the pr agency speech, which ignored the pr agency speech entirely.
“Yes, our executive director said the government is failing miserably at helping thousands of homeless people,” I recall one caller saying. “But earlier on, she praised the government for their efforts at trying to cope with a very difficult situation. Your journalist only focused on the government shortcomings. Your story was incomplete.”
Thank God I no longer have that difficult job:
Off the top of my head, in such a situation I’d say if the executive was quoted accurately, the coverage was correct and perhaps that executive should be better briefed on how to handle the press.
But that doesn’t help you when you know the story in print and on the media outlet’s website does not reflect your group’s message or how it feels about government policy. So what can you do when you think a journalist gets your message wrong?
What to do when a journalist has erred:
When I worked as the ombudsman, as I say, it wasn’t easy. And I give kudos to any news organization that has appointed a visible point person for readers or subjects of news to contact in such cases. They also may be called reader’s advocates or public editors and they are there to help you in such cases.
Start with the journalist:
If there is no such person at the media outlet you are concerned with you can start by calling the journalist involved. Ask to speak to him or her face to face. The personal touch usually works best. Then gently but firmly outline your concerns. He or she may very well agree. If you get no help there you can always go to their superior editor or section head. That means the editor in charge of the section where the news appeared.
Again be calm, kind and specific when outlining your concerns. If you have any proof such as a tape or written speech bring it along. You may even convince them to use video excerpts on their website if they have no video feed as media outlets are notoriously understaffed and often lack visual story content these days.
Why this strategy?
These days websites can correct errors or misimpressions instantly. So goodwill can work wonders.
And the web, social media, blogs, video captures, tweets and retweets are fluid things. That is why they are so effective in public relations and why a pr agency will use them. That very fluidity, the ability to “trend” and “go viral” can work to your advantage to tell your story on the web for you and your clients.
You can be your own pr agency:
You can tell your own story. The best thing is to get your story out there quickly. So put it on your own webpage and create a blog about the topic you wish people to get a different message about. But remember do not attack the source of the original controversy.
You can also create a separate web page addressing your message through story, with related partners or like-minded agencies or firms. Create a story driven by message and web content that tells your story as you want it to be heard to the people you want to hear it.
Mum’s the word on bad info:
Make sure it is presented in a manner that is helpful and useful for those who you need to hear it and is not about your company but your message and your cause. That way your story is available and the web can overtake the news. Again, never mention the incorrect news information. Then tweet and blog away and share your stories with as many people as you can.
What kind of redress is there?
If you and the media outlet agree there is an issue to correct or address you have a number of options.
You may be able to get a formal correction or clarification issued in the paper and on the website. If the error is serious some news outlets will even issue an apology in print and on their website.
But there are some other more old-style methods I think are also effective.
- A well placed letter to the editor, in print and on their website, explaining your concerns in a diplomatic manner will go a long way to solving your problem.
- Or you can ask that the next time the story is in the news and a follow up story is assigned your group be included so you have a chance to get your story out there.
- As a last resort you can threaten to sue but I only advise this in the worst case scenarios where you get no cooperation at all and there is a definite tangible error.
Think big picture:
Remember you want to preserve your important working relationship with journalists. And they depend on you for media relations as much as you depend on them. Threats of legal action or lawsuits just spark less cooperation, not more.
As far as the type of correction?
The nature of the error will decide if:
- your executive tweets the correct spelling of his name with a humorous plea for folks to get it right
- you issue a media release, complete with media kits full of data downloadable off your website
- you post a statement on your website and hold a news conference as part of a full-scale public relations campaign
I always say a lawsuit is the last resort. I say this mostly because legal action, by its very nature, draws even more attention to the original problem and can require a public relations campaign of its own to handle the fallout.
But if your lawyers tell you to sue, by all means do so. Your reputation, your relationship with your customers and the integrity of your brand is at stake. And if it is a big lawsuit you may need to hire a pr agency to help tell your story.
But I have one last tip:
In my experience over many years working in media relations, I’ve noticed a journalist will make fewer errors when you bring along your own tape recorder and/or video camera to record an event or interview at the outset.
No reasonable journalist should object. Then should you find yourself in a dispute you are comparing apples to apples, so to speak. It is really just public relations 101.