Like a child's game of telephone, when each one whispers a message to the next person, everyone knows how easy it is for the simplest of messages to be transformed beyond recognition. When an organization gets the short end of the stick, whether from a trade paper or 60 Minutes, the offended parties turn to PR pros to try to set the record straight.
This is often easier said than done.
How PR pros can best go about correcting errors and making complaints is a matter of great debate. Although most of the pros we spoke to had strong opinions about what course of action to take, many doubted that expressing dissatisfaction would actually result in the press making a correction. Sometimes the best outcome is to alert the press to be more careful in dealing with that source or company next time.
Kandace Bender, press secretary to San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, is cynical about the outcomes of complaints. 'It is difficult to get a point of view changed, if not impossible,' she says. 'But I never let something go if it is incorrect.' From the point of view of due diligence on the PR pro's part, the act of complaining may be as important as the complaint itself.
And the media is pretty much free to do as it pleases, given the lack of agencies to turn to when you are dissatisfied, Bender adds.
Lee Helper, founder partner of the entertainment oriented agency, Bender Helper Impact, says you have to get perspective and decide what the potential impact on a client's product is. 'Some things are worth correcting, some you just have to let go.'
Everyone is human, and reporters make mistakes, too. The most common mistakes are with numbers and with chronology of events, says Helper.
Admittedly, reporters are often pressured to get details on secret financial deals and have to 'ballpark' the numbers, sometimes inaccurately.
In many instances, however, figures that are too low or too high have a huge impact. For instance, when an incorrect budget for a TV series gets into the trade press, it has a huge effect on talent, production staff, and royalty demands.
When the phrase, 'according to a source,' creeps into reports, it is hard to know just who that source is and how far to contradict them when complaining. But when you decide that you are going to complain, what is the best method?
Most agree that finding a balance between the clients' interests and your media contacts is essential. The first rule is to approach the reporter first, before going to his boss.
'You don't want to antagonize people by writing Dear Stupid Ass,' says George Drucker, EVP and GM of Edelman (LA). 'Be diplomatic and neutralize the mistake by pointing out the positives and negatives.'
Most agree that the first stop should always be with the reporter to whom you are closest. And often, the old-fashioned letter to the editor should be the next step if you don't get what you want.
Of course, some disagree. Elliot Sloane president of Sloane & Company in New York, says that sometimes writing letters just keeps the issue alive for a longer period.
While getting recourse in print has long been easier than on TV or radio, the Internet is starting to change all that. Last month, CBSNews.com printed the objections of psychiatric hospital Charter Behavioral Health Systems to a 60 Minutes II report on abuse of children in hospitals.
In turn, CBS News also published its own responses to the accusations on the Web, thus preserving its point of view in the face of the hospital's objections.
Charter's spokeswoman Karen Jenkins was quoted in The New York Times as saying: 'At least it allows the public to see there are two sides to the story. But we were disappointed that our response did not get on as part of the broadcast.'
The Internet has allowed for much wider debate about stories in the media and the complaint board on the Brill's Content Web site has become the dry cleaners for a lot of dirty linen. San Francisco's Bender used the Web site to write about her grievance over the misrepresentation of the city by the Manhattan City Journal.
Complaining about the tone of a piece is much more difficult than complaining about factual inaccuracies. But if you are thinking of heading to court, be warned. Drucker says keep in mind The NY Times vs. Sullivan case in which the complainant had to prove (unsuccessfully) that the Times had malicious intent.
According to Websters' New World Dictionary of Media and Communications by Richard Weiner, libel is defined as 'written, printed or broadcast defamation; a statement or picture that is malicious or damaging to a reputation. Spoken defamation, other than broadcast, is slander.'
In general, defamation is any untrue statement that tends to injure another person or company's reputation. In court, it is necessary for the plaintiff to prove that the defendant acted 'negligently or with actual knowledge that the statement was false, or with reckless disregard for the truth,' says lawyer Gerhart Klein in PRSA's Accreditation Guide.
Drucker concludes that the best way to get your desired outcome is to use the negative to change a perception. Bring in an outside expert, who isn't a client but can support your cause. His final advice is not to react immediately but to think carefully, form a strategy and execute it. That may not involve penning a single word.
HOW TO PROTEST
1. Contact the reporter and stress the positives as well as negatives in the piece.
2. Take the complaint further if the reporter is unwilling to rectify the mistake.
3. Correct inaccuracies via letters to the editor or postings on a related web site.
4. Consider video-taping your executives being filmed to ensure you have your record of the interview.
5. Explain to the client that the issue is perhaps not as serious as they think it is.
6. Introduce a neutral third party to support your cause.
1. Shoot from the hip or the lip. Think out a strategy, don't act on impulse.
2. Ask yourself whether it is worth complaining.
3. If the complaint is likely to lead to legal action, don't make contact with the reporter until you have spoken to a lawyer.