Media relations

G is for Getting a correction

The A to Z of media relations
Supported by Unicepta
G is for Getting a correction

Here is an admission. Journalists make mistakes. They are, after all (and admittedly it is easy to forget this), only human. But what should a PR do when an article or broadcast contains errors that are perceived to be damaging to your client or organisation?

First, before you start firing off an email, is it really a mistake? Many years ago, a PR sent me a copy of a letter (pre-email, can you imagine?) he had crafted to another journalist in which he corrected every perceived slight, grammatical errors, and other omissions in an article about his employer. It wasn’t about accuracy, it was about tone. He didn’t like the implications of the piece so he fought back. It was petty. It also became an amusing story for journalists to share whenever the PR’s name came up.

Professional journalists do not like to make mistakes. In the old days, the sub-editors’ bench would stop howlers such as wrongly spelled names or billions instead of millions (many’s the time I gave somebody a £1 billion pay rise), but in these pressured times such errors can easily appear. A simple call to the journalist should suffice in these instances, who can then amend online copy, delete a related social media post, and update their records to ensure that the error is not repeated. Your tone should be polite, rather than aggressive.

Some publications choose to issue a formal update of an online story, highlighting that an error had previously been made. In a review of 2018, The New York Times claimed it had published more than 4,100 corrections on digital articles, but – to put this in context – it had published more than 55,000 articles and 50 million words over the year. (Ironically, the article about its 4,100 corrections required two corrections.)

Issues arise, however, when the error is more significant. Again, it is appropriate that the first call is made to the journalist. And again, the tone should be polite. The journalist should then escalate the matter within their news organisations. It is a conversation that any hack dreads, telling their editor that the story of which they were so proud is, in fact, incorrect or misleading.

If the inaccuracy is about a listed company, then it may require a Stock Exchange announcement. For the sake of future relationships, the journalist should be informed before this occurs.

Unfortunately, as the old truism goes, it’s hard to get the toothpaste back in the tube. Once a story is out, it can gain a life of its own – and by the time a correction is issued, it is unlikely to match the impact of the initial article. Aggrieved parties often complain that their much-needed correction is buried at the bottom of a page, with a 36pt headline.

But all is not lost. Companies increasingly use their own media platforms, such as corporate website, LinkedIn pages and other social media, to explain their side of the story and correct inaccurate news pieces.

In the wake of the financial crisis, American conglomerate General Electric launched a blog to counter perceived inaccuracies in articles about its funding arm. Staffed by professional journalists, this ultimately took on a life of its own as – with minimal restrictions on their reporting – the hacks explored the business, and rooted out newsworthy stories. GE Reports is now respected as a source of interesting stories from the worlds of aviation, healthcare, and energy, and is often quoted by other publications. A salient lesson that all is not lost.