Reporters don't deliberately get things wrong to annoy the subject of their story. But those who think otherwise could be forgiven if they were following the example set by the sadly huge army of the aggrieved misquoted who get straight on the phone to hang the miscreant scribe out to dry.
As Peter Oppel, director of the City of Dallas' public information office, says, "A reporter doesn't mind being thought of as 'tough,' 'insensitive,' or 'mean,' but they never want to be 'wrong,' as they lose credibility with their fellow reporters."
But whether they were wrong, mean, or simply took a firm grasp on the wrong end of the stick, there is always a peevish subject at the other end of it. "People naturally have an emotional reaction, admits Richard Chernela, VP at Magnet Communications. "So it's essential that the PR counsel calm them down first."
Part of this calming-down process is not only discussing how best to ask for a correction - it's whether or not to ask for one at all. Clients and agencies with good media relationships go to the same journalists repeatedly, and there is only a finite number of times they can be contacted without irritation. "While they have an interest in getting an accurate story, they don't have an interest in being bothered, says Jericho Communications president and founder Eric Yaverbaum. "You have to pick and choose what to ask for."
Furthermore, says Oppel, "See if you get any adverse reaction to the story from your constituency, your customers. (The audience) doesn't have a great memory, and bad news is like dead fish - it doesn't smell better with age. The problem with fighting for corrections, especially on TV, is that the station is obligated to repeat the issues they are correcting; therefore, the 'bad news' gets aired again. The decision whether or not to pursue the matter is an integral part of the correction process.
There are three basic kinds of problems which lead to calls for correction: a factual error, a misinterpretation of information, and a negative bias.
Within the first category are both minor and major indiscretions.
Sonya Snyder, president of Quill Communications, says, "It's critical to get a retraction when key facts have been blatantly misrepresented, or are outright falsehoods that will affect the company's future business potential. But there are other mistakes, like misspellings of a name, headlines which are somewhat misleading or not idyllic, and copy points, like saying the firm has 20 employees when they have 19, that don't affect the business in a meaningful way. With these, I counsel my clients to call the reporter - or allow me to - to thank them, and just let them know that while the story was good, it is important for us to clarify a few points or stats for future news options."
Then there's the misinterpretation matter - whether deliberate or not.
Oppel last month dealt with a City Hall-beat reporter that had followed city council members to a conference in DC. The reporter spotted one councilwoman leaving the conference and taped her as she walked into a place that did "nails. But rather than getting a manicure on the taxpayers' dollar, "she had broken a nail, worked through it until it became too painful, then went to get it fixed, Oppel says.
Although he explained that to the reporter, the story still ran without that information. "I wrote a letter of complaint to the news editor saying stories like this betrayed the station's purpose to 'fully and accurately inform its viewers,' Oppel says, and adds that while "the reporter has not been 'cordial,' he has not tried to do any 'investigative' pieces that puts city government in a bad light. And that's really the important thing."
Finally, there's the matter of the undesired bias - quite often the most grievous kind of error. "The most important thing to do is provide an accurate analysis of the article, says Chernela. "Even the slightest negative point is the one the subject turns to immediately, even if there's a gazillion good things. So an accurate analysis is essential."
When the decision to act has been made, what next - especially if the client has no real grounds for correction? "Lay out the alternatives," says Chernela. "While the client frequently wants to do counterproductive things like threaten to pull any advertising, the PR person has to come up with a productive strategy. If it's a negative story that identifies a real problem, invite the reporter in to see how the company is addressing that, then a few months later, pitch a turnaround story."
Page two of The New York Times, and similar slots in other titles, are now known for the workaday corrections and clarifications that caused no undue harm in the long run. DC's veteran communicator Ofield Dukes reminds us that this is "in contract to FCC specific broadcast guidelines that the 'airwaves belong to the people.' In other words, it's normally a mere formality to get a correction in such a place, with no real skill required.
Don't be discouraged by the apparent lack of prominence of these standard corrections, says Oppel. "A lot of people ask 'Then why should I even bother?' The reason is simple: The next time the reporter interviews you, he is going to be a lot more careful with what he uses because he knows he is being fact-checked by his sources."
The other great (better, many say) tool for getting your point across is a letter to the editor. When Yaverbaum was working with IKEA in 1994, The Wall Street Journal wrote a negative piece. "The president called me, asked me to write a letter, and said that he was going to call them and ask them to print the whole letter word for word, he recalls. "I tried to persuade him it was a waste of time. But he did - and they actually did print the entire letter. The lesson here is to try. The letter was printed in full partly because it came from the president, partly because it was well-written, and partly because the article got a big response. (One warning, however, is to beware the editor's reply, which can occasionally be subtly biting.)
Whatever recourse of action is decided upon, it is common sense to draw the reporter's attention to an error or poor judgment if a relationship is to continue. Not only will this ensure the error isn't repeated, but it upholds certain principles as well, says Dukes. "People who become victims of inaccurate reporting must now defend themselves, as those who feel strongly about having firearms for protection, under the rights of the US Constitution."
1. Do take a deep breath before acting
2. Do accept that an undesirable story is not necessarily an unfair one
3. Do discuss whether a correction, a letter, or a simple education is best
1. Don't go over the reporter's head
2. Don't cut off a publication because of one reporter's attitude or ineptitude
3. Don't expect the correction to have the same prominence as the original story.