Media relations: What to do when the media get it wrong

Sooner or later, despite your best  intentions, a news story will contain errors that put you or your company in a bad light.

The media wrongdoing might entail getting the facts wrong, omitting relevant facts that create the wrong impression, or using certain words that convey a negative or unfair representation of your organization.

The error(s) of fact or emphasis may have simply been the result of an honest miscommunication by the reporter working on the story. Or it may have been the expression of an unconscious bias, or perhaps even a deliberate twist of the truth.

Either way, what do you do when the media get it wrong?

First, be sure you have a legitimate gripe. You’re likely too close to the story to have enough perspective so show the article to a neutral party and ask him to provide objective feedback. Does the story actually contain errors, omissions or harmful biases? Often you’ll be surprised to find that the message you hoped would get through to the audience, in fact, did.

Alternatively, a story may be unflattering to your organization but it might be entirely accurate and unbiased, in which case you don’t really have any valid recourse to pursue.

If it has been determined that you are the victim of media wrongdoing, you should take action – just be sure that you can prove your case.

Some companies might be inclined to think that they’re better off to “lie low” and not do anything. They believe that by not bringing further attention to the story, they avoid fanning the proverbial flames and the story will go away. Sometimes this works but it’s a calculated risk that can backfire.

The problem is that even when you’re saying nothing, you’re saying something. I’ve seen several cases where companies decided to not do anything and it had the opposite affect they wanted: the negative stories perpetuated and had a surprisingly long shelf life online. Because the company never made an effort to tell its side of the story – early and rapidly – readers came to the wrong conclusion and eventually believe it to be true based on hearing only one, misinformed side.

There is far more long-term upside for your company to thoughtfully and succinctly counteract negative or misleading media coverage than there is hoping it will go away. Hope is not a plan!

Before we talk about how to take corrective follow-up action, ensure that you vent your indignation in private and NOT to the reporter. You want to get the emotion out of the way first and clear your head so that you can strategize the best way to negotiate a remedy.

If you’re sure the media report is unfair, here are some avenues of recourse to consider. The remedy you choose when the media get it wrong should correspond to the seriousness of the error. For example, if it is a minor error and a genuine mistake, a short note to the media outlet asking for a correction will suffice; if the error was more serious, you may want to pursue stronger recourse. If the content is really offside, this might be grounds for libel, in which case you’ll want to also consult with a lawyer.

  • Respond quickly to avoid repetition of the error. Radio, for example, operates on a 24-hour news cycle and often airs the same news story several times – sometimes every 30 to 60 minutes. With print, you have more time. If you’re dealing with a major daily or blogger you generally want to respond anywhere from immediately to three days depending on the severity of the error. Most newspapers today let you post comments to online articles so you may want to consider posting a brief response to fend off a viral spread via social media channels.
  • Clarify and correct. Even if the error is a minor one that involves incorrectly identifying a senior executive in a photo cut line, you should clarify. You don’t want the mistake to resurface in future stories. This is important with print media especially because future reporters will refer to that story in their news article database when researching and writing their story. With broadcast, you can ask for a retraction and correction and in some cases, the reporter will revise the story with a station-initiated apology. When you make this phone call, be ready to give an impromptu interview and have a digital recorder handy to record it for your files.
  • Contact the reporter directly, don’t go over his head. The reporter will: a) either agree and admit he made a mistake and offer to arrange a correction; b) offer to rectify the situation with a follow-up story; c) admit that the story is imbalanced but tell you that a correction or follow-up isn’t warranted, or d) dispute your claim that the story was distorted.

(i)If you are able to resolve the issue with the reporter, explain that you’ll submit the correct details in writing so that the media outlet has a copy for their files as well as to use as a reference when publishing the correction in the next issue. Don’t repeat the original errors in the story, since it just gives those errors more ink or airtime. Just briefly articulate your point of view.

(ii) If you can’t resolve the issue with the reporter, be honest and direct with the reporter and tell him you are going to contact his editor.  The reporter will appreciate the head’s up.  If your grievance is legitimate, the editor will likely be accommodating and offer to publish a correction or, if you’re lucky, give you equal ink for a follow-up story.

(iii) If you’re still unsuccessful at this stage, a letter to the editorial pages director might be your next best option. Keep your letter to about 250 words in length and cite the factual errors, shortcomings and distortions. Keep the tone professional – you don’t want to come across vindictive, immature or reactionary.

  • If the paper refuses to publish it, then your last resort is to approach the Press Council. This now becomes a more lengthy and tedious avenue of recourse that will either result in a retraction / correction or not.  If not, this is where the media buck stops.
  • Cut off all contact with the reporter. This is an extreme measure that is rarely pursued but if you believe you have absolutely nothing to gain by having future contact with this journalist, you may want to consider this option. If possible, try to avoid this measure– you’re better off trying to find an amicable solution.
  • Use social media and other channels to communicate with important audiences. Direct online channels such as your company website, blog, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube are all forums available to you to get your story out. Listen, engage, respond. You’ll be in a better position to pre-empt and counter negative profile in the future if you already have a positive and extensive profile established online and offline.
  • Try to see the opportunity in the error. The real PR gurus devise ways to turn lemons into lemonade! If the journalist got your story wrong, this could be a good opportunity to pitch a follow-up story that positively reflects your organization. This error might also be a good time to revisit your SEO strategy and implement an online reputation management initiative with key words that bump the negative story several pages down Google search pages.

Remember, just because you had a bad experience with one media outlet, does not mean all media are bad nor does it mean you should cut off contact with all of them.

It’s rare that a story gets completely out of hand. When it does, often the organization itself didn’t handle the situation correctly at the outset and responded too late in the process, thereby relinquishing their chance to pursue a correction.

The media can be an important and influential vehicle that provides a credible third party endorsement your company needs to get to the next level. Take the time to nurture and build relationships with reporters so that when and if there is a difficult situation, you’re starting from a place of trust and goodwill.