Anthony Hilton: At least get the basics right, guys

Throughout my working life as a journalist I have always taken it as read that press releases were accurate.

Perhaps this was born of necessity and was a result of having to deal with around six mailbags of releases a day. Now we receive the modern, electronic equivalent.

The sheer volume means most of these missives initially receive only the most cursory glance, but even that copy-tasting job would be impossibly time-consuming if one did not accept that the facts as presented were correct – selective,  certainly – but accurate for all that.

This is not to say that I always believed the releases in terms of accepting the arguments being put forward, but that is a question of interpretation of facts, not doubt about the facts themselves.

The reasons 99 per cent of press releases get discarded are four-fold. Some should not have been sent to the City desk in the first place, some are contrived purely to generate a bit of publicity – eg. yet another spurious survey – some are old by the time they arrive, and some are just not as interesting as the other news available on the day.

Recently, however, I have noticed several press releases where the facts are quite simply wrong. One had a fundamental mistake in a worked example of an annuity– forgivable, you might think – but which provided a conclusion that was completely erroneous. In public spirited mood that morning, I phoned up to point it out so they could pull it. But others have slipped up on third-party titles, dates and other important matters of detail.

It is significant that most of these problems have arisen when firms are trying to generate a bit of publicity for themselves by reacting to a particular event. For example, the Government makes an announcement and the law firm, accountant, actuary, or whoever, emails round a comment and a quote or two from their in-house expert. Now if it were a release about the firm itself and some initiative it wanted to promote, the release would be checked and double-checked before going out. But when the release is opportunistic, the same standards do not apply – and it shows.

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