TOP Talk

Awkward! What To Do When the Media (or Others) Get It Wrong

Posted April 28, 2014 By Sue Parente

Topics: Thought Leadership, Earned Media Relations

Mistakes happen and nobody knows your company as well as you do, so it's inevitable and understandable that an outsider might garble some of the facts or miss some of the nuances. Not to mention the extreme deadlines and deluge of information that reporters face today.

Sometimes, however, an inaccuracy is serious enough that you feel the need to correct the record. So, how can you gracefully correct mistakes about your brand, without alienating anyone in the process?

Of course, you and your PR team have every right to approach reporters and editors to correct factual errors, inaccuracies, and incomplete or misleading information. In that purpose, companies and reporters are perfectly aligned, as both want the reader to have the most accurate and complete information available. I've never once run into a reporter unwilling to make updates and corrections that would better inform their reader.

But before you fire off your correction, take a moment to slow down and ask yourself a few key questions to ensure your outreach doesn't end up doing more harm than good in terms of your relationship with the reporter and publication.

How grave is the mistake?

Resist the urge to police every little mistake in your brand mentions. You want customers and other influencers to talk you up in social media, product review sites and other public venues. Sometimes grassroots brand participation entails a little inaccuracy.

If you can't correct the point without appearing controlling, picky or schoolmarmish, that's your hint not to bother.

Is it truly a "mistake" – or just a story premise you don't like?

You may disagree heartily with the premise or tone of a story – but that's not the same thing as dubbing it a "mistake" and clamoring for the reporter to rewrite it. That's not something you can always control -- if you could, it'd be called advertising, not PR. You'd be better off in these situations waiting for an opportunity to present another angle or side to the story with either the same or a different publication to communicate your point of view.

Should you respond publicly or privately?

If the mistake is worth correcting consider it in a larger context. If you get a negative product review from a customer, reach out privately to that person and make things right. Never badger them into editing a public review – your first priority should be salvaging the relationship. If you pull that off, you may see a window to ask them politely to edit their review.

What if the mistaken party is a bigger influencer, like a reporter or industry analyst? Again, put the mistake into a broader context. If you're tight with this influencer and the mistake is an honest one, ping them privately and ask for a change. They'll appreciate the chance to correct it themselves.

If you do go public with your correction, always consider how your response sounds to a third-party reader. In public forums, you may think you're directing a response to an individual question. But your public response will live on to be read by thousands of subsequent readers.

Do you sound friendly, factual and matter-of-fact? Can you back up any claims with relevant links? Or does your correction "read" as defensive, whiny or badgering? Obviously, you want to lean on the former and dial way back on the latter.

Who should be the "face" of correcting the error?

If the CEO discovers a mistake in a media story, that doesn't mean he or she is the right person to correct the error. Consider the job title and rank of whomever you dub to fix the mistake. Run-of-the-mill errors in product reviews should be handled by a product line or customer service person, not a C-level executive.

Sometimes your PR team can help serve as an effective go-between. Other times you might want to do the opposite: connecting the journalist to your VP of Product could be a way to parlay an error into a productive conversation about your future plans. Again, it comes back to the best way to preserve and grow relationships.

How can you indicate respectfulness first?

Just because you have the right to correct mistakes doesn't grant you license to contradict any individual's personal experience or opinion. Even if they ran away with the wrong idea, which resulted in a negative evaluation of your brand, you need to respect their feelings. Nobody likes feeling mistaken or, worse, misled.

Find something constructive to say before plunging into error-correction mode. Unless it's a pure monument to carelessness, thank them for the time they've invested in this topic and for giving you a chance to discuss.

Did you contribute to the error in any way?

Not all mistakes originate outside your company. Consider the possibility that you may have contributed to the error in one way or another. Did you understand the reporter's beat and primary objective with the interview initially? Is your FAQ on a given policy confusing or incomplete? Did you rush a blogger or journalist through a product demo? Did you understand the nature of an analyst's questions and guide them to the correct resources to educate themselves?

Acknowledging your contribution, however minor, to a mistake can help smooth an otherwise awkward conversation. When all parties feel less on the defensive, it's much easier to get to the bottom of the error and correct matters to everyone's satisfaction.

Sue Parente

About Sue Parente

What inspires me? Brave communicators who dare to put "right" before "safe."