Reaching out for corrections, even corrections that may not come
“I’m not that eager to make a mistake”
– Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”
Bob Dylan might have saved The New Yorker some trouble by reading – and responding to – fabricated quotes assigned to him in Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer recently left The New Yorker after two incidents – repurposing his old copy originally published at other outlets for New Yorker blog posts and, more recently, acknowledging he made up quotes from Dylan in his book. Maybe Dylan was busy, but Michael Moynihan, writing in Tablet, was on it.
Of course there’s a difference between a book and a news source, even if the author works for one. And not everyone who makes an error is a fraud. Most mistakes are accidents – errors in fact, misunderstandings, typos, bad edits, etc. These can be tough to uncover and correct, especially if the writer is unaware of the error.
In 2009, Scott R. Maier wrote for Harvard’s Nieman Reports that 97 percent of factual errors reported to 10 daily newspapers were not corrected. Maier offers a number of reasons why mistakes are not corrected. (Big hat tip to Poynter.org for leading me to the link.)
The post is well worth a read for journalists and PR professionals alike, but I want to focus on the PR end. I’ve heard anecdotally that some folks don’t want to correct errors, which means an ethical journalist who would clear up the record may not even know an error was made in the first place.
Especially in the online world, errors that are uncorrected remain errors in perpetuity. And errors that are allowed to stand are more likely to be repeated. Mark McDonald, our crisis communication expert at Vox Optima, and I discussed this as I wrote this post. He noted (emphasis added by me):
A correction is for the record. It can be hard to get the message back when that happens, but you’re correcting it for the record.
Ethical journalists – and there are an overwhelmingly very many – understand the need to correct errors. They buy into a point Jock Lauterer sums up nicely in his terrific book Community Journalism:
When it comes to trust and credibility, the importance of making forthright and prompt corrections cannot be overstated.
This also applies to the subject of errors and the public relations folks who rep the subjects. At Vox Optima, a portion of our media training process involves inserting errors into copy for our subjects to detect. The expectation is they will do two things. The first thing they should do is catch the mistake. The second step is seeking a correction.
This process may seem basic, but I’ve been a bit surprised that correcting errors is not always a priority, even when the error is obviously identified, such as a basic factual mistake.
This may be old hat for many of you, but I’ll go through some suggested steps for seeking a correction. These are suggestions because, despite what I just typed, there is a thing called discretion. You know your clients. You may know many of the reporters you regularly deal with. You may not want to draw additional attention to some things. But here goes:
- Read coverage about you or your client. Get Google alerts for you, your firm, your firm’s executives, your products, etc. Read everything. Read everything again.
- Reach out to the reporter or author and explain the error, either by phone or email. Factual errors generally are simpler to correct. Errors of interpretation can be more challenging. But have a conversation about what is wrong. Be polite, but ask to correct the erroneous information in the story.
- If that doesn’t work – say the reporter doesn’t understand why a correction is needed – contact the reporter’s editor. Again, be polite and clear, and explain what the error is. Understand whether the information will be corrected – also when, where and how. For example, if an error was made not only on a Web story but in a tweet by the story’s author, is the correction also going out via Twitter?
- If the editor is not responsive to your concerns, try to push forward in one of two directions. One way is to go higher into the chain of editors, from a “front line” editor to the city editor or a managing editor. The other way is through a public editor, reader advocate, or ombudsman, should the organization have one.
And let me add – none of what I’m writing about here applies to unethical PR reps painting a factual report as erroneous because it makes their client look bad.
If there is a real error, especially a factual one, my experience is that these steps will lead to a correction. That may not always happen, however. The proliferation of blogs of widely varying editorial standards may also create issues. What then?
In some cases – and only after some deep, critical thinking – you or your client may take to social media and try to clear the air, as Chik-fil-A did when the company erroneously was accused of creating a fake Facebook profile (hat tip to SpinSucks) amid their ongoing hoopla.
Or try to post a (very, very) polite correction on the site of the publication or blog that refuses to correct the error. Use other social media to make that correction known through your own pages and pages of the organization that made the error.
In the case of Chik-fil-A, the note to followers read:
“Hey Fans, thanks for being supportive. There is a lot of misinformation out there. The latest is we have been accused of impersonating a teenager with a fake Facebook profile. We want you to know we would never do anything like that and this claim is 100% false. Please share with this with your friends.”
The FB note by Chik-fil-A had well over 93,500 likes, 11,700 shares, and 23,500 comments on Tuesday. Some media outlets corrected the item, too.
Corrections matter. People will notice errors or, worse, repeat them.
Even journalists covering the Jonah Lehrer flap are not above errors. For example, Steve Denning at Forbes published this correction:
“References in an initial version of this article erroneously referred in places to Bruce Springsteen instead of Bob Dylan.”
Not a fun mistake, but at least Forbes corrected it.
For further reading, there is a piece by Craig Silverman at Poynter that discusses issues of correcting errors on social media, which can be tricky.
A former U.S. Navy, Virginian-Pilot and Times Herald-Record journalist, John is a member of our Vox Optima Norfolk team. He is a prolific social media writer, so you can always find him on Twitter, on Facebook, his personal blog, or by shooting him an email.
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