Last week an online news site did a story that mentioned one of my clients. Unfortunately, there was a major error in it. When I talked with the reporter about the inaccurate information, he quickly corrected it and explained that the error occurred during the editing process. Of course, since the article had his byline, people assumed it was his fault. I can relate to his dilemma.
During my time as a correspondent for a daily paper, I vividly remember one occasion where I fell victim to the editorial process. I was covering a local meeting of city officials and took great care to accurately report what took place during the meeting and the outcome.
The next day, I picked up the paper and saw my story had been changed to state the exact opposite of what I wrote about the officials’ decision on a particular matter.
I immediately called my editor, explained the error to him and said I didn’t understand how what I wrote could have been revised so drastically.
“I changed it because I could tell they were just BSing around,” he said nonchalantly.
“Well, we’re going to have some problems with this article,” I replied, somewhat stunned by his cavalier attitude. He shrugged it off as no big deal. And to him, it may not have been, but it sure was to me.
My name was on the article, and it wasn’t accurate. In fact, it was the exact opposite of the truth. Would people who were at that meeting ever trust me again, I wondered.
Headlines can burn a reporter (and client) as well. Once a story is turned in for editing, a person other than the reporter writes headlines to make them fit within certain parameters while also using a handful of words to attract attention and give readers the gist of the story. There’s quite an art to headline writing, and sometimes under the pressure of deadlines, mistakes are made. Sometimes big ones.
Early in my career I worked for a nonprofit organization in Southern California that owned some property where the organization was planning to build a facility. Things didn’t go as planned, and the property went into foreclosure. The reporter from our local paper, who I knew pretty well, did an article about it and accurately reported what had transpired.
The headline, however, declared our entire organization—which employed thousands of people—as being in foreclosure. It all got straightened out and corrected, but not before causing lots of excitement for us from panicked vendors, employees, community leaders and other Los Angeles-area news media outlets.
Certainly there are times when the reporter is at fault for inaccuracies, and all too often news stories seem to be slanted to fit a particular agenda. There also are times when a PR representative provides the reporter with incorrect information or misstates something that comes back to haunt the organization when the misinformation shows up in print or on air.
The moral of these stories is this: If you are charged with handling ad agency PR and find yourself needing to contact a reporter for a correction, give him or her the benefit of the doubt. Be careful not to overreact or arrive at conclusions before gathering all the facts, and keep in mind that it may have been an honest mistake or misunderstanding.
Finding out how a mistake was made and who is at fault is less important than getting it correctly promptly. Always keep the long-term in mind, because how you handle errors with a reporter can make or break the relationship—and affect how your client or agency is covered—for years to come.