When it All Goes Horribly Wrong

When It All Goes Horribly Wrong

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I have this recurring nightmare where I am back in my old radio news room preparing for a newscast.

As the clock strikes the top of the hour, I lurch up from my seat, clutching a half finished script and watch as my carts (yes, I am dating myself) containing all my soundbytes go flying, scattered like playing cards in an diabolical game of “52 Pickup.”

There’s nothing but the sound of dead air on the radio. And everyone’s staring at me. That’s when I wake up.

In the PR world, the equivalent of that scenario is the one where we work hard with a reporter on an article, only to have it published with factual errors, accidental promotions (or demotions) or mangled quotes, despite our best efforts at educating the writer and fact checking the piece.

Of course, you only find out about the errors it once they’re out there – and by then it’s too late. Now the client is upset and your reputation is on the line.

So what can you do in these scenarios?

After picking yourself up off the floor and downing a shot of whiskey, you need to set to straightening things out. Pronto.

Here are a few courses of possible action:

1. Talk to the reporter. This is always your first step. You need to find out what happened. Sometimes it’s not the reporter’s doing, and they’re just as shocked as you are. I once had a reporter tell me – somewhat despondently – that her entire column had been rewritten by the editor because they thought it should be “more sensational.” Those scenarios aside, if it is a true reporter error you must have a frank discussion about the facts and explore what your options are.

2. Leave out the interpretation and correct the record. No publication worth its ink will issue a correction that isn’t 100% factual, like mispellings of proper names or titles, budget numbers or other items that are black and white. Gray is left for the letters and op-eds; don’t even try to correct perception or writing style, because you’ll have better luck talking to a brick wall. Once the incorrect facts are identified, provide the correct information in the form of a clear, written communication so the reporter can hand it over to their editor.

3. Help your client understand the process. When disasters happen, the only thing our clients (and we) want is for them to go away, and fast. Cleaning up a media mess is like scraping dog poop off your shoe; it’s ugly, smelly and makes you want to wash your hands multiple times, and taking care of it now will save you from tracking it around after you for a week. Explaining to your client what the options and courses of action are will help manage their expectations and create a more positive end result. So get in there right away and lay out how this is going to go and what you’re going to do. Take charge. This is your expertise. Own it.

4. Don’t be bashful. Now is not the time to be timid! Represent your client (and yourself) vigorously and fairly. Make your case and tell the reporter why the correction is warranted, calmly and objectively. Don’t engage in hyperbole and don’t yell or lose your cool. Which goes hand in hand with…

5. Know when you are right. If you have the facts on your side, don’t back down even if the reporter says they won’t hear it. Good reporters want the record to be accurate and most will recommend a correction to their editor on their own if it’s based in fact. If you have a factual correction that the reporter won’t consider, inform them you are going to their editor and follow through. Never go around the reporter without telling them.

6. Keep your client in the loop. Most corrections take a day or two to print and this process can take longer if the initial error was on a Thursday or Friday. But letting your client know you’re on top of it will help rebuild any lost trust or negative opinion they may have toward you in the face of the error. And it helps you get it behind you faster.

As PR people, we get paid to protect our clients’ interests as if they were our own. We have to be masterfully accurate and one step ahead of every reporter inquiry. That said, mistakes happen and there are ways to make them right. They’re never as satisfying as the mistake never having been made, but what’s worse is not correcting it and having the error repeated again and again. In the world of Google, it happens all the time.

I’d love to hear how you handle correcting the record.