What to do when the media gets it wrong

What to do when the media gets it wrong

It happens. Phone-hacking scandals or libel claims for which we’ve seen mid market national newspapers pay compensation aside, there comes a point when the media will make mistakes. Sometimes honest, other times careless mistakes, yet how to deal with them when they happen can be a tricky process. Meerkat PR advises how to find the balance between correcting errors and maintaining the relationship with the media.

Richard Lewis had a booming start-up company selling recycled and eco friendly gifts. While handling his PR, part of the strategy included targeting the SME media, positioning him as pioneering entrepreneur. His story attracted the attention of an entrepreneur magazine with which we had negotiated a double-page spread. Interviews took place, photography was done and the usual PR buzz between client and the agency took place. Six weeks later I was first to receive the magazine, with a thank you note from the reporter for suggesting a strong story in relation to the magazine’s agenda. I then opened Richard’s story to my horror. The headline, in bolded type size 40, read: ‘Meet entrepreneur Richard Lexis’. Lexis!, I thought? Slightly gobsmacked, I checked the article and noticed that he had been referred to as both Lexis and Lewis. I still couldn’t make sense of it, so I started by covering my basis to see if any error was from my side. I then double-checked all press releases and email correspondence which had Richard’s correct last name everytime – Lewis. In fact, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of anyone’s last name being Lexis!

And then the phone rang. Richard had received his copy and was absolutely furious. He wanted to get on the phone to the reporter, commissioning features editor and editor-in-chief to give a piece of his mind. He had every right to…

Richard then asked me if I could get them to reprint the article and I immediately told him, without even asking the magazine, that it would be impossible – that’s not how the media works. Taking matters into my own hands I then carefully wrote a very diplomatic email, followed up by a phone call, highlighting what had happened and that ‘it had obviously been a sub editing error’ (we will never know the truth as to what happened) and suggested we remedy this by letting Richard have a column called ‘Green Entrepreneur’ of 400 words per issue for the remainder of the year (copy which we would have provided this time). The magazine were obviously too embarrassed to go into detail about what went wrong, yet gave the green light to the column idea which saw Richard have coverage, with his by line, for three future issues of the magazine. Situation managed.

So, what are the seven habits of dealing with media errors?

  1. Divorce emotion from the situation: Ringing up a publication emotionally charged, angry and rude will not get you anywhere. Egos are fragile in the media world so keep it cool, factual, light hearted and to the point. Always follow up a telephone chat with a clearly worded email summarising what was agreed and pointing out the error – try to end on a positive note. “We hope to continue to enjoy a great working relationship you.”
  2. You may not receive the apology you want: So be prepare to settle for a correction or some form of compensation, but don’t be bitterly disappointed if you don’t receive an outright apology. Remember, what’s truly important is what it published in future, not the ‘sorry’ you get on the telephone.
  3. Let your PR person handle if it you have one: Speaks for itself. If they negotiated the opportunity, it’s their role to set it right. They will naturally opt to preserve the relationship.
  4. Know that apologies, even if granted, are limited: National newspapers and magazines do have columns called ‘corrections’, or ‘errors’. Know they are not always prominently featured, so, manage your expectations.
  5. Online corrections can be instantly handled: With more media content going online, it does make it easier to see quick turnaround times for corrections.  Your job is to inform the publication ASAP. Might be cheeky, but ask the publication if they would be willing to keep the story live, or more prominently featured longer to make up for the time it was incorrect. This is often a fair compromise.
  6. Learn to let go: There will be publications, which may not be willing to compromise on printing a correction or doing anything else. Your job is to evaluate how damaging the error is before escalating your response.
  7. Turn it around: “Would you be willing to accept this story next time” “I’ve got a great idea, fitting in with your editorial agenda that could work to put things right”. This sort of positive narrative is constructive and useful.

Dealing with media mistakes can be upsetting and frustrating. Always keep your cool, keep it positive and find how the situation can be turned around in your favour.

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