A client recently asked me if the media ever gets the story right. I told him that yes, of course they do. In fact the media is accurate more often than they’re wrong. I think it’s like anything else, if you’ve experienced a situation where there was an error or mistake made you remember those mistakes more readily than the times the media is correct. It’s human nature to be that way.
What’s more, I think people tend to get confused between inaccurate facts and simply not agreeing with an article or disliking the piece. In these instances, it’s not so much that it’s wrong, but rather that the person reading it had a different point of view or disagrees with the writers argument. There is a clear and distinct difference.
From a public relations (PR) perspective the difference is significant. If a reporter gets the facts wrong, more often than not they’ll be eager to correct it. They don’t want to be wrong or inaccurate. There are ways to approach a reporter if a mistake has been made. Often when an error has been committed the natural response is to get mad and to want to call the reporter to complain. In these instances, I recommend stopping and consulting with your PR team before flying off the handle and calling the reporter.
Flying off the handle is nothing more than an emotional response that can escalate the situation to the point that the reporter gets defensive and is unwilling to listen or make a change. By talking to your PR team they can advise you in the best ways to respond. The first step should be to calm down and verify that there is actually a mistake. Once the mistake has been verified, reach out to the reporter via phone or e-mail to calmly discuss the error. Point the mistake out and simply ask for a correction. In most cases, especially in this digital age, a mistake can be corrected in seconds and the problem is resolved.
Where companies run into problems is not liking the way a reporter writes or says something and feeling like they’ve made a mistake. Differing opinions or word preferences don’t calculate to an error in facts. I’ve worked with PR professionals and clients that want to control the message so badly that any deviation from what they think is right, down to the last syllable, are viewed as wrong. This simply isn’t the case.
Here’s an example to illustrate the point. One client I worked with always insisted on seeing articles before publication. A reporter is under no responsibility to provide his or her article to anybody but their editor prior to publication. Often they’ll want to fact check to make sure they’ve got information correct and aren’t misleading in their articles. In these instances they’re not looking for somebody to change words or rearrange their article. They simply want to verify facts, hence the term fact checking.
This client that insisted on seeing every article prior to publication was famous for trying to change adjectives or rephrase the reporters article. If the reporter wrote that their product or service was “wonderful,” the client would often want change it to a different adjective like “magnificent” or “brilliant.” Or, if the reporter didn’t show this client their article in advance I would inevitably get an e-mail saying, “I don’t like the way he said this, can you call him and have him change it to say this…” I would always tell this client no and explain to him why.
There are specific steps you can take to ensure facts are accurate and to influence the way a reporter phrases key messages. Listed below are six tips to ensure accuracy.
- Develop messaging and stick to the messaging. Messaging creates a communications platform that will drive all communications from the company. It’s important to decide what are the most important messages you want to convey. What does the reporter need to know in order to understand what your company does or the benefits your product or service provides. When a company has a clear, concise and streamlined message that clearly tells what the company does, consumers, the media, clients and potential partners don’t have to waste valuable time trying to decipher and understand what you do. If you don’t know your messaging how can you expect a reporter to know or understand it?
- Provide the media with key information prior to an interview. I recommend you send the reporter the name of the person he or she will be talking to along with their bio. Make sure their names are spelled correctly and that you include their title. If you have a corporate backgrounder or a document that accurately gives the company’s history or tells what the company does, provide that in advance. Same goes for product descriptions. The more information you can provide in advance to prepare the reporter the smaller the margin of error.
- If you don’t want a reporter to write or know something, then don’t tell them. Just because you’re being interviewed doesn’t mean you have to divulge every secret or give a full confessional.
- Don’t guess. It’s OK not to know all the answers. If you don’t know, don’t guess. If you can verify or find the answer tell the reporter you can get him or her the info at a later date. If you commit to do that though, make sure you get back to them as promised. Failure to do so will result in a loss of trust.
- Be prepared. I recommend taking time to practice what you want to say. What are the key messages you want to communicate? What are some potential obstacles or hurdles you want to avoid? If those obstacles come up during the interview practicing how to respond to those things will make it easier if the situation presents itself.
- Be on time. Schedule enough time to allow yourself to sit down and get comfortable, collect your thoughts and get organized prior to an interview. If you’re running late your chances of saying something you shouldn’t or don’t want to increase dramatically. If you have a few minutes to gather your thoughts, you’re more likely to be relaxed and at ease and paying more attention to what’s being asked and how you’re responding.
Interviews with the media are great. Yes, mistakes have been made. However, before you get mad and start making phone calls to make heads role, make sure you’ve done everything in your power to provide the reporter with accurate facts to work with. If you’ve followed the steps above and an error is still made, allow your PR team to step in and handle the situation.