There’s nothing that can match the excitement of opening a piece of earned media you helped pitch and place.
And there’s nothing that can match the pit in your stomach when you realize there’s a glaring error in the story.
What happens next isn’t a fun situation for anyone — not for the PR pro, not for the client and not for the journalist who made the error.
But how you respond to this situation can define your relationship with that journalist moving forward — for better or worse.
So you’ve spotted an error
Whether a mistake is as simple as a typo in a name or as complex as misunderstanding a new product offering, it’s important to take a beat before you reach out to the journalist. You want to approach them with an attitude of empathy, not anger.
“It’s a very human reaction to come at the reporter hard when you’re when you’re feeling that pressure,” Adam Kiefaber, an experienced corporate communicator with a background in journalism.
But all the communicators we spoke to agreed that approaching the reporter respectfully is key to getting the error fixed and preserving that relationship.
“From experience, it has to be done in the right way and in the right tone – in a softer, hands-off type way if you can – especially in email,” wrote Chris Cradduck, a partner with LDWW. “You are talking to someone about their work, so the goal is to be 100% respectful on the piece and what they’ve written, and focus only on what should be updated factually.”
Melanie Doupé Gaiser, VP of healthcare at Ruder Finn, agrees.
“I generally note that I know how important accuracy is to them and wanted to flag that ‘XYZ’ should say ‘ABC’ to be accurate,” ” she wrote in an email to PR Daily. “Then I ask if they ‘would be willing to consider this correction request. I phrase it that way because it inherently and respectfully acknowledges their ultimate control over what is published.”
Ultimately, you can’t force a correction, no matter how much you may want to. You have to convince them.
Linda Zebian is now senior director of communications for Muck Rack, but she worked in corporate communications at the New York Times for more than a decade, giving her plenty of experience in the corrections department.
“I like to position my note as a question, i.e. using ‘Update your story?’ in the subject line, rather than ‘Correction needed ASAP’ or something that feels aggressive out of the gate,” she told PR Daily.
“I like to begin by thanking the journalist for covering my organization in the story (assuming the story is generally a positive or neutral one). Then I link to the story and also cut and paste the copy that includes the inaccuracy so they know what story I’m talking about right off the bat. Then, I briefly explain why it’s inaccurate. I would not recommend making a suggestion on copy — just give them the facts so they can draft copy as they see fit.”
When a client wants a ‘correction’
Those are all solid tips for when a journalist has made an actual mistake. But what if the client is merely unhappy and wants a correction for something that isn’t actually wrong?
K.C. O’Rourke, owner of KCLO Communications, said educating clients helps them understand why reporters may push back against requests.
“It really helps to educate the client on journalism ethics,” she said. “why that’s not possible and why we give media the space to do what they do effectively. Sometimes it’s coaching the client on what the reality of the job is and the reality of what we’re trying to communicate through the media.”
Doyle Albee, president and CEO of Comprise, has a framework for considering requests for correction. He calls it “the three Fs,” and explained them in an email to PR Daily, edited for length:
- “Fact: Is there a mistake in a fact? Just because you don’t like how something was said doesn’t mean you get to ask for a re-write.
- Fair: Even if a fact is wrong, is it material enough to warrant a request? Let’s say you tell a reporter that you’re launching a product in 4-6 weeks and the reporter writes, “about a month.” Not exactly the same, but not really incorrect and likely not a material problem. In this case, we’d likely recommend an email to clarify and if the reporter chooses to correct, great. But we would likely not counsel a request for correction.
- Friendly: Even if it’s really, really wrong, the conversation can and should be friendly and professional. There is no reason to berate or be demanding.”
When facts in a story aren’t technically wrong but aren’t explained as clearly as they could be, Kiefaber suggests acting as a resource instead of an antagonist.
“Instead of being a correction, sometimes in those cases I would offer up an interview with an executive that they typically might not have access to, and we can go through and help educate them,” he said. “So the next time they understand what the difference between this is and why we thought it was so sensitive,” he said.
Remember that ultimately, everyone has the same goal: a factual, accurate article. Your role is to help the reporter achieve that as best you can.
“Also remember journalists are hard-working human beings and errors happen,” Zebian said. “Your job as a PR professional is not to call them out but help them gather information and facts, so grace, patience and understanding go a long way.”