Devil’s in the Details When Working with the Media

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They got it wrong. Very, very wrong.

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the individual mandate in President Obama’s healthcare law is constitutional, a big win for the president. But that didn’t stop major media organizations CNN and Fox News from mistakenly reporting that it had been struck down.

Fox and CNN are two big news organizations with lots of resources. Getting it wrong was a huge embarrassment. Something that should never, ever happen. Yet, it did.

You might be tempted to write this off as an inside-baseball media story. But, it’s not. Everyone who does public relations for a living ought to pay close attention, because it can happen to you. In fact, if you’re in this business long enough, it will.

Make Sure the Media Get Your Story Right

The main point is that the media can and do get it wrong. Working with complicated stories under deadline pressure and with limited resources, mistakes happen. In a high-profile situation like an anticipated Supreme Court ruling, the situation is quickly remedied when other news organizations point out the error.

But what about a lower-profile story on your company? What if one news organization’s error gets picked up by another and the mistaken information snowballs? What if you can’t ever get the story back on track?

This can be an unmitigated disaster. It can take a positive story for your company and turn it negative. Or, it can exacerbate a crisis you’re trying to manage.

While we have limited control of stories once the media get them, there are some steps we can take to avoid major errors in making complicated announcements. Following these rules can help avoid mistakes and allow you to address them quickly when they occur.

9 Tips for Avoiding Media Errors

  1. Write your press releases simply and without jargon. It’s less important to be pithy than accurate.
  2. Don’t try to slip in details subtly. Reporters may miss them. If it’s important to the story, make it explicit.
  3. Do not put important facts exclusively in quotes. Make sure they reside elsewhere in the release.
  4. Use bullets to highlight key information. They can serve as a fact check within your releases.
  5. Consider embargoed releases to avoid deadline pressure. Time pressure was a big reason for CNN and Fox getting it wrong.
  6. If your strategy allows, consider letting a few key reporters who follow you closely break complex stories. They’re most likely to get them right.
  7. Follow up aggressively with reporters and offer them help understanding the news. They’ll appreciate this.
  8. Monitor coverage carefully. Read and watch every story. You need to know that it’s getting out correctly.
  9. Address inaccuracies immediately. Don’t let mistakes spread.

Even with a great deal of care, the media are going to get some of your stories wrong. They don’t like it. And you don’t like it. So, do the best you can to make your news clear and correct errors quickly. Everyone will be better off.