A matter of facts: Dealing with checkers

PR professionals have to be ready at a moment's notice to feed the always-inquiring minds of a media outlet's fact-checkers.

PR professionals have to be ready at a moment's notice to feed the always-inquiring minds of a media outlet's fact-checkers.

Jay McInerney's 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City gave magazine fact-checkers their 15 minutes of fame. But while the spotlight may have faded, these fastidious souls continue to toil away at major - and even some smaller - magazines across the country. Once a story is written and ready to be published, fact-checkers are charged with calling all the sources involved to double-check everything from the spelling of a person's name to the estimated sales of a multinational conglomerate. PR people should be ready to respond quickly and matter-of-factly to such calls, but also understand the obvious: the fact-checker is not the person to whom a story or follow-up angle is pitched. However, some PR people who deal routinely with fact-checkers say that calls to check facts can be an opportunity to find out whether a client will be getting some press, and maybe even what kind of coverage is coming. The best way to glean such information is to be available for fact-checkers' calls day or night and to respond quickly and succinctly to what they ask. "All of those things we do as PR people - schmooze, turn on the charm - doesn't work with fact-checkers," says Dea Eldorado, senior media specialist in the Los Angeles office of Golin/Harris International. "I always try to be really modulated, but I try to get as much information as possible from them." Eldorado recounts a call from a fact-checker with a major magazine that she had been pitching for a client. When the fact-checker began asking her questions, "She started spelling the name of some alien company or brand that I've never heard of," she says. The fact-checker had called her for the wrong fact, but after some questioning, Eldorado was able to find out that her client was in the story as well. Brian Maddox, managing director, media relations with Financial Dynamics in New York, says of a call from a fact-checker, "For some people, it's an early warning of disaster. They're asking questions about sides of a story you'd prefer not be told. The story could follow an angle you hadn't expected. You get a sense of what facts have stuck from an interview." Kasia Moreno, chief of reporters at Forbes, says fact-checkers there "check everything that goes into the magazine - no matter how long or short." Forbes uses the title of reporter for people who check facts. It employs 25 reporters, hiring people with journalism experience who - when they're not fact-checking - can pitch their own story ideas to report on. "We go for young, aggressive, entrepreneurial people who have had lots of internships" and journalism experience, Moreno says. Forbes writers author the stories and then give them - along with their sources' names and numbers - to reporters, who call everyone in the story. "You basically reinterview people whom the writer interviewed," Moreno says. Indeed, a reporter may have as little as one day to confirm facts. "When we start fact-checking, we're already under deadline pressure," she notes. Mary Ellen Egan, deputy chief of reporters at Forbes, agrees. "Response time is an issue," she says. " The quicker they get back to us the better." When a corporate executive is quoted in a story, the reporter will try to reach that person, not just his or her PR person. "It's clearly better to get to the executive, unless the PR person was present for the interview" and can confirm what was said, says Moreno. "We want to check with primary sources on the phone." As a result, PR people need to be ready to round up those sources quickly when asked. Pariee Markowitz serves as an editorial assistant at Golf magazine, where her main duty is fact- checking. She sometimes calls companies to confirm information in press releases only to find that executives didn't know what their PR firms were putting in those releases. "Make sure the company knows" before putting out a release, she advises. Pitching her a story when she's fact-checking is also a no-no. "It would be much more successful to pitch when a fact-checker isn't on deadline," Markowitz says. Vanessa Grahl has seen the fact-checking/PR dance from both sides. As an intern at Hour Detroit magazine in the summer of 2001, she spent much of her time checking facts. Now, she's working as an intern at Stearns Johnson Communications, a PR firm in San Francisco. Back when she was fact-checking, "It was pretty common that PR people would say, 'Could you send the article so we can read it,'" Grahl recalls. Most magazines won't do that - asking for an entire article will just slow the fact-checker down, she says. Taking calls from fact-checkers now, "I can understand what their role is," Grahl says. "Understand that the role of the fact-checker is not to write or rewrite." Indeed, PR people have their own pet peeves when it comes to fact-checkers. Jolie Shifflet, a public affairs specialist with the US Coast Guard, has worked with fact-checkers from such major publications as US News & World Report, Esquire, USA Today, National Geographic and Parade magazine, usually in a very straightforward manner. But she once was called by a fact-checker from Atlantic Monthly asking for confirmation of how many ships and boats were in US waters - data the Coast Guard does not maintain. Shifflet also finds that she sometimes needs to supply answers more complicated than the yes or no that fact-checkers seek. When this happens, she tries to clarify the information that a fact-checker is seeking. "I ask enough questions until I understand what they're asking me," she says. Michelle Stephens, media manager with the American Academy of Ophthalmology in San Francisco, gets calls from fact-checkers seeking statistics on eye-health topics. "We don't track statistics," she says. When fact-checkers call with such data, she wants to know where the original writer got the information in the first place so she can refer the fact-checker to a more appropriate source. It might not be Bright Lights, Big City, but fact-checking serves an important function at many publications, and PR people who want to help clients tell their stories correctly should always make themselves available when a fact-checker calls. ----- Technique tips Do answer and return the calls of fact-checkers promptly. They're on deadline. Leave evening and cell-phone numbers where you can be reached Do confirm spellings, facts, and figures, and make company execs available when needed Do be matter-of-fact and succinct Don't ask to see the entire story before publication Don't try to pitch new story ideas or new angles for an existing story Don't be afraid to ask questions so you fully understand what a fact-checker is looking for

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