How to ask for a correction

So you got the coverage you pitched for — but it contains an error (or two), and the reporter sees no errors at all.  Now what?

In this piece for Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey, I provide a few examples of how to ask for corrections, and how not to. You have successfully navigated the treacherous waters from pitch to published post, having convinced a member of the press to write a story about your client’s latest product. But now the phone rings or the email dings: said client isn’t happy about something that the reporter wrote, and wants it fixed, stat.

“Our business is at stake! We can’t let that misinformation stay out there online a single minute longer! Get on it right away!” (Or so I imagine this conversation.)

So what do you do? I will tell you what you don’t want to do: immediately transfer your grief to the hapless reporter, in hopes that they will play ball and do your client’s bidding. Take a moment, here.

When people ask me all the time if I ever try to write fiction (as in the Great American Novel), I usually reply, “Not intentionally.” I have been writing for the tech trades for more than two decades, and I make a real effort to ensure that my prose is free of any errors, either introduced by moi or (back when we worked with their proud species) copy editors. I hate it when something that I write isn’t right, and I go through a lot of different checks before my pieces are published.

But hey, stuff happens. Sometimes the briefing is unclear. Or a feature that I didn’t see is actually hidden inside the product, several menu layers deep or in a special locked dungeon that only wizards can enter. Or when the PR person doesn’t really answer my question because they are confused. So when the eventual error happens, I will work mightily to have the offending bit replaced with the truth.

Here are a few tips of what to do – and what not to do — in these situations.

First, don’t immediately get into the angst transfer from client to reporter. Take stock of what your client is demanding and try to see if it really is a material error that will kill off Q4 sales or it is just a particular point of view. If a POV, have the guts to push back to your client. They may not be happy, but ultimately this is the right call, and they will thank you for your honesty.

Second, if it is a material error of fact, then recommend to your client that you, being the savvy PR pro that I know you are as a SWMS reader, will not bother the reporter with the mundane details. Instead, attempt to engage the site’s readers by posting your interpretation of the fact along with some other artful language as a comment to the article. Comment? You know those things at the end that are written by actual readers. It amazes me how when I suggest this to PR people, it appears they are hearing this for the first time.

The client might say at this point, “But no one reads the comments, and the error is still in the article.” I disagree, and indeed, by posting a comment you control the message and can say whatever you like (within reason) and probably more people will read that comment than a line of text midway down in the fourth graf on page 5.  And the people who run the tech site (we used to call them publishers) will be happy, because the more comments they get (even from stinkin’ flackeroos), the more they are rewarded with cash bonuses and a general feeling of goodness.

But the client persists and wants a “real” in-line correx.  At this point, don’t threaten to go over the reporter’s head and call their editor to get it fixed if the reporter demurs. That is the nuclear option, and like the days of the Cold War, it can result in mutual destruction of both parties. You don’t want this toxic fallout.

Instead, think about your future relationships with both client and reporter. Use it as a way to schedule a three-way. (As in conference call.) I have seen the most apoplectic client purr with gratitude when faced with a reasonable editor who apologizes for the error. Hey, it can happen.

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