What to do when someone publishes something wrong

Last week I published a wrong fact on a website for which I’m responsible. I won’t repeat the inaccuracy but it was an offhand comment based on an entirely wrong assumption about someone’s work. It was part of the intro rather than the substance of the story, which is no excuse but that’s pretty much how it slipped through.

So, if someone does something like this to you, what do you do? Here are some guidelines, not to make you feel better (shouting might do that) but to get to a good resolution (which shouting probably won’t).

  • Accept that a human being made a mistake. You don’t know them but there is every chance they’ll be as concerned at their error as you were. Approach them in this spirit rather than with the aim of “taking them down”.
  • Try to think through what you want from the situation. An apology should be forthcoming but more importantly you want every online source referring to the wrong suggestion taken down or amended as swiftly as possible. A clarification or retraction should also follow.
  • If you have a PR company or other intermediary, use them. You might well be furious, and this might be perfectly understandable but heated and sweary emails or calls are going to make people reluctant to deal with you, no matter whether they ought to or not.
  • If you approach the people making the error by email, definitely don’t swear. It’s a sure fire way of ending up in their spam bucket and this might delay any constructive response.
  • Remember it’s an error in a piece of writing and not a personal attack. The journalist will know they’ve done something wrong and although it may be tempting to rub their nose in it, it will rarely help. Also the chances are that if it’s a professional journalist they’ll have a means of dealing with what happens when we goof – it’s an occupational hazard, we do know mistakes will creep in. Ask about their usual procedure and see whether it will work for you.

I’d be interested to hear of approaches that have worked to salvage a situation – or approaches that haven’t worked – as comments.

Do you need help dealing with journalists and making your interactions with them more productive? Email me about my media training and coaching offers.

Who do you think you’re talking to?

I had one of my favourite things today: a press release from a doubtless tiny PR company, which stated in the covering note that they were positive the story would fit perfectly into something called “the Clapperton, Guy”.

Speaking as one of the few Clapperton guys I know (my brother is another) I have to say the company did two wrong things. First, the subject really wasn’t in my area. Second, it’s fairly obvious that nobody was sanity checking the emails – no-one could let something like that through if they were actually reading it.

It reminded me of an incident a few years ago in which someone pitched something they thought would work in “my publication”. I asked them which publication they meant, thinking they might be targeting one of my regular outlets, and the response I received basically said:

“I have checked out database and it appears you are a freelancer. You therefore do not have a publication. I hope this clarifies matters.” I’d been perfectly clear on that point all along, thanks.

Think before you send

There are thousands of journalists and bloggers out there, and thanks to the speed at which you can set up a blog the picture can change overnight. I get that, I really do. It’s no longer reasonable to expect every PR person to keep up with every stray hack who might wander on to their territory.

But it so unreasonable to ask them to sanity check the list, see if there’s something that stands out as “obviously not a magazine or newspaper name”? That’s where I part company with the senders of emails like this. Engage the brain before sending – you might even write a better targeted press release as a result.

Do you need help with media engagements? Drop me an email, I can help.

Sourcing stories – how it’s evolving

Journalism gets a lousy press sometimes. Given that we are the press this is ironic, but it’s the case. Even before it was uncovered that several of us were tapping into people’s mobile phone messages illegally, people assumed that we made stories up, intruded into people’s lives, named suspects of crimes before they were convicted and soforth.

So I thought it was worth laying out some of the rules we’re supposed to follow. If you or a client feel you’ve been treated other than properly according to any of this, you have a cause for complaint.

First, not every story comes from a press release or official announcement. What, you really thought President Nixon had officially released Watergate, or that the Enron directors had made a formal declaration about their crooked activities? No, the rule is that we’re supposed to find at least two substantive sources for every story. Unfortunately social media is diluting that. Only today I saw a report about an MP’s estranged wife accusing him of being an alcoholic. I make no comment on the truth or otherwise of the claim but it was taken from one of her Tweets. In other words, no second source – so he could sue if he wanted (mind you, he’d then be seen as the big bad MP suing his former wife – that would never play well).

Second, while we’re on the subject, an insult is not the same as a libel. Libels are specifically damaging allegations which are factually wrong. So if you wanted to call me a useless git whose work was unreadable I couldn’t touch you – it’s called vulgar abuse and the law doesn’t care. If you add that I’m habitually late with deadlines and I plagiarise, I can claim you’re damaging me because these are specific and untrue. This protects reviewers; I can say your play was rubbish; if I say it lost money when it didn’t, I’m acting unlawfully.

In terms of accusations, there are clear laws about what you may and may not report and that includes names. If you feel you’ve been named unjustifiably in a criminal case, you need to speak to a lawyer rather than read a blog.


The really interesting thing for me as a practitioner is how this stuff is evolving. OK, I’ve been a journalist for a quarter of a century and had some training so yes, I know about the two-source rule (and I’ve had a few of those which have proven, nonetheless, to be wrong after I published them – I don’t miss that sort of journalism, invaluable training ground though it was).

The emergence of the blogger, however, has diluted a lot of those standards. Don’t misunderstand me; there are some utterly superb bloggers out there whose work is as good as any professionally trained hack. There are others, though, who think they’re in the Wild West, who won’t acknowledge your right to reply and who don’t believe they need more than one source.

This is now spilling into the mainstream press, which is why we’re seeing MPs falling out with their wives and exchanging allegation of affairs and alcoholism without any real thought as to how legal these statements are. The journalists at least should be considering the legality; I suspect they’re actually weighing up whether these people are actually likely to sue and publishing regardless.

Obviously the best way to avoid this sort of coverage is to make the best of any press opportunity in the first place. I can help with interview skills and media preparation – click here to book some time on the phone and we’ll talk. Or fill in the form below and let me know how I can help.

When PR works, it’s fabulous

Journalists like me spend a lot of time moaning about PR people when we feel they’ve done something wrong. So I thought I’d tell you about something that went spectacularly right only this week.

One of the jobs I do is to edit Professional Outsourcing Magazine. It’s peopled by lively contributors from the academic, business analyst and consultancy worlds and is generally a lot of fun to do – until someone lets me down for an article.

So for whatever reason, on Monday I was left without a piece to fill five pages near the front of the magazine, which has to go to press this week.

I put out a plea on Response Source. This is a service that allows journalists to send blanket emails to PR people (who pay for the service) when we need help. The problem with this sort of service has been, historically, that a lot of the PR community – so the stories go – get a whiff of coverage for their client and pitch anything, no matter how irrelevant. I’ve seen journalists say so in tutoring sessions and if I’m honest I find the attitude patronising, for a good reason.

The quality of the answers I had was universally superb. So, what went right?

  • First, the number was low. This didn’t mean people didn’t want to help. This meant people had read the request and didn’t respond if they were irrelevant. If you’re among those who saw the request and excluded yourself from responding because it would have been unhelpful, thank you. (I’ll grant you I tend to get more irrelevant responses when I’m writing for the Guardian or New Statesman – the higher profile publications tend to push your head further over the parapet).
  • Second, people told me why they were replying. Two people conceded they had nothing to say about outsourcing but they understood I’d been let down and was faced by an empty page so something vaguely on the right theme would be better than nothing. Sometimes you get responses that are really left of field or plain irrelevant; there was none of that on this occasion.
  • Third, someone read the brief and realised that other than the length they had something ideal. They were apologetic about the length but offered extra pictures instead. That particular example is in, no question, and OneChocolate Communications can have all the brownie points they want for reading and understanding – as can Ketchum, whose article I’ll probably use in another issue, and Friday’s Media Group and Say Communications. Plus everybody who read the initial plea for help and held off communicating because they couldn’t help.

The PR community often gets a rough ride from journalists, who can be a stroppy lot. On days like today I quite seriously wonder where I’d be without them.

Do you need help with media interactions? I can help – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Imitation: not always flattering

I read about the American Senator Ted Cruz‘ attempts to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with some bemusement over the weekend. For people not reading this immediately, this was the weekend on which America made equal marriage for gay as well as straight people legal throughout the country, and – significantly – a couple of days after President Obama started singing “Amazing Grace” at the memorial of his pastor friend Clementa Pinckney, so horribly murdered.

Obama had whoops of appreciation from the congregation, which was used to breaking into song and which saw this as a genuine gesture. Cruz was met with silence and according to the story above, his security people asked anyone with their phone out to delete the footage.

So, you’ve seen a speaker or a spokesperson do something that works. Should you “borrow” it or not, and how do you know whether it’s going to look cynical?

Borrow but make it yours

Personally I borrow stuff all the time. Until recently I didn’t have a formal “sales funnel” but on deciding I needed to sharpen my speaking and media training business, I put one in. Whilst media training I speak about the bridging technique to get people out of difficult subject areas; I imagine most media trainers will to this, it’s commonplace and certainly not my own intellectual property.

I’ll even “borrow” a news story as I’ve done to write this post, and I see nothing wrong in this. What I won’t do is imitate the participants – I’ll add or overlay my own commentary so that the content is mine, and this is where I believe Senator Cruz went wrong. However sincere he may have been, it ended up looking as though he thought, “that worked for Obama”, took all the context away – the friendship with the pastor, the fact that this was an act of remembrance in a church – and tried doing exactly the same thing.

It’s the same when you find someone referring to a story you tell on stage, or something you’ve written, as if it’s their own. A colleague of mine was around the music industry a lot in his youth, mostly through his father, and as a child brought tea to a number of people who are now pretty much legends. He’s told the stories on stage, and was once surprised to hear someone else doing a speech claiming to have done exactly the same thing at the same gig (book Alan Stevens if you want to know the stories, I’m not nicking them!).

It’s never a good idea to pinch someone else’s idea too directly. Refer to it, put your own interpretation on what happened by all means, but don’t just nick stuff. It will always catch up with you.

Do you need help with your media engagements or presentation skills? I can help – drop me a line or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Media training: mention the brand!

Picture: In real life I look less like a geography teacher. I hope.

At a media training session yesterday I had an unusual experience. In general I find people are too quick to mention their company name too many times. They’re in the interview to make their point and build their business so of course you get the “In my company, X, my colleagues think the best thing for X to do is this. X customers, on the other hand…”

…and so it goes until all of the quotes hit the cutting room floor. I’ve had near-rows with internal PR people about this in the past, who’ve urged clients to mention the brand in every sentence. Never, ever do this. No matter what you’ve said, we’ll hear “product puff” and won’t use the quote.

Yesterday’s event was different. The company in question had to be coaxed into mentioning their brand at all.

Branding in media interviews

At Clapperton Media we believe there’s a balance to be struck and no hard and fast rules, except that if you play a recording of an interview back and feel you’ve been too salesy, you might be right. (See what I did there? One brand mention and that’s going to be the lot for this post).

Bear in mind, though, that there can be different sorts of interview. If you’re doing a piece to camera or an audio interview, you’re free to ask how it’s going to be used. If they’re going to use your best quote and your best quote only, try to get the company name into every answer – otherwise you’ll lose your opportunity to promote it. If the publication is going to use the full five minutes or however long, then once or twice is enough.

Either way, focus on the valuable content you can share with listeners, readers or whoever. No matter how polished your delivery is, you’re going to be remembered better for what you said rather than how you branded yourself – and this is true whether you’re a massive international corporation or a tiny sole trader.

Do you need help with your press engagements? See our media training page for information.

Three mistakes people make in interviews

I interview a lot of people and coach almost as many in talking to the press. Here are a few of the howlers I see often.

Telling me something more interesting than the story they need to promote. I was interviewing one guy and asked him the opening “tell me about yourself” – honestly, just a name and job title would have been fine. Instead he replied “Ah, I think I know what you’ve heard”, and told me about how he definitely hadn’t been sacked from his previous job. He was so emphatic that even if it had been true and he hadn’t been fired, I wouldn’t have believed him. I certainly wasn’t interested in anything else he had to say – the opening story was far too entertaining.

Assume I work for you and will allow retrospective editing of your comments. It’s a point I’ve made before and I’ll no doubt return to it again. I once went to a company’s premises and interviewed all of the directors. The marketing manager was then distressed to find that I’d used their comments instead of simply reproducing his brochure. For someone who was portraying themselves as a marketing manager to a company in the financing sector this was astonishingly naive. He was also distressed when I disclosed things his company regarded as confidential – and which they’d told a reporter who’d come in at his invitation, without any indication that there was anything not to be repeated. Look, if you don’t want a reporter to report something, don’t tell them.

Withhold non-confidential information. There was an episode of “The Apprentice” in which one of the candidates was horrified to see that someone had got hold of her company’s accounts. These are publicly-available documents and you can’t suppress them if you’re a limited company. I’ve had people tell me they don’t disclose their profit figures because they’re privately held and it just tells me they don’t know much about how their business works; Companies House will disclose any company’s declared figures.

None of which was as much fun as the guy who, when I pointed out that I could find out his profit relatively easily, came out with the response “No, you can just find out about the profit I declare to Companies House, the actual profits are a load more.”

I was young and inexperienced, and I still regret not publishing that quote in full!

Do you struggle with interviews in the press? Do they serve the journalist and do nothing for your business? I can help – drop me a note by clicking here, call 07973 278780 or fill in the form below.

From senior UK journalist Guy Clapperton

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