Combating Bad Press

You’ve just concluded the best media interview of your career. A very prestigious publication interviewed your CEO. You did everything by the book. You feel good, your CEO feels good, and the reporter obtained everything needed to write the story. You can’t wait for the article to appear.

Two weeks later you pick up the publication and your heart drops to the pit of your stomach. Key information your CEO provided is all wrong: quotes are taken out of context, attributions are mixed up, critical sales numbers and percentages are transposed. What to do?

Over the years, reactions to this scenario have run the gamut: from vowing to never talk to a reporter ever again, to canceling all advertising with the publication, to conveniently “forgetting” to invite them to a news event that everyone else in the media is attending.

These types of reactions may make you feel better, but they only serve to worsen your media reputation, your PR, and it almost never produces the results you want. Rather than taking a negative approach to resolve the problem, sit down, take a deep breath, count to 10 and think.

What you need to do is to complain! It is absolutely imperative that you make a complaint if you feel strongly that any publication – print or electronic – has published or broadcast an imbalanced or skewed story.

You don’t necessarily want a printed retraction or correction, which could keep the story alive; however, if you don’t complain, the erroneous information will be repeated in future articles about your company when the publication archives its records. Once it is printed three times, the errors become facts, which are almost impossible to correct. More importantly, editors and news directors have no knowledge of staff incompetence or biased reporting if you don’t let them know.

The way you make the complaint is just as important as making the complaint. Don’t make the complaint while you are still angry about the story and the erroneous information contained in it. Be sure to wait until you have cooled down and can think with a calm, clear head.

There are a number of ways to complain to a publication and generate maximum results. Let’s suppose, for example, the story contains misspelled names, wrong titles, or numbers that don’t necessarily damage your organization. Your best bet is to call the reporter first to discuss your concerns. Let the journalist know you plan to follow up in writing, with a copy to his/her boss. Remember to keep it short and to the point. Thank the reporter for his/her time and then get right into specific details concerning the misleading information.

If you think the problem is serious enough, you may ask for a correction or a retraction. Once again, remember, this approach may keep the story in the public eye. If the story was negative to begin with, it may generate additional exposure you don’t want. So, think long and hard about the benefits and risks associated with this type of approach.

It is best to deal with the media outside of the media, though, so if mistakes aren’t that damaging to your PR, then is is best to either complain to the writer or their editor, make sure that your voice is heard, and then get on with your life.  However, if the errors are more serious and could potentially do damage to your public relations, then more immediate action is required.

Start off by contacting the writer and their editor and explain to them the severity of the mistake that has been made.  Fully illustrate the possible (or real, if new travels fast) repercussions you could suffer because of their mistake and how ignoring it is not an option.  Ask for a retraction or a correction and tell them you intend to issue a press release the same day.  The press release should calmly and simply explain that an unfortunate mistake was made, correct the inaccurate information, and if applicable, tell people to look forward to the coming correction.  Even if there are some serious potential repercussions, it is best to address the situation as a honest mistake which will soon blow over.

There are times, though, where the story is so damaging, biased, or so grossly inaccurate that it seriously impacts your organization’s business operations.  If this is the case, and especially if the errors are so egregious that you suspect malice, then be sure to consult an attorney before you complain. They need to know how serious you are at that point, and how you are willing to sue if necessary.  If it reaches this level, though, you have to mean it. In some states, the form and timing of the complaint can have a major effect on your rights in a future suit.  So if the situation is that serious – and you will know it when it is – then it is important to act quickly, but with a clear and focused mind.

From a professional perspective, there are a number of organizations and publications where you can make a legitimate complaint about journalists’ performance, including the Columbia Journalism Review, the American Journalism Review, Quill, The Society for Professional Journalists, local journalism reviews, and the FCC.  Make sure to use these tools when the situation warrants, like when mistakes are severe, frequent, or when complaints fall of deaf ears.

This article, written by Kathy Tridente, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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