Quarreling with People Who Buy Ink by the Barrel

A Walmart executive took the liberty of editing a New York Times column. It was a clever response, but it wouldn't work for just about anyone else.For a long time, people in the PR business urged clients to avoid picking fights with "people who buy ink by the barrel." It is another way of saying, "don't bring a knife to a gunfight."

But Walmart isn't accustomed to taking advice, as evidenced this week by its response to a New York Times column that accused the giant retailer of paying "humiliating wages" to its workers and being a "net drain" on the U.S. economy because its employees rely on food stamps and Medicaid.

David Tovar, Walmart's vice president of corporate communications, decided to apply his red pen to Tim Egan's column, with this note attached: "Tim, Thanks for sharing your first draft. Below are a few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn't get published." 

Walmart posted the Tovar editing job on its website, then let the fur fly. The "Fact Check" post quickly attracted media and blogger attention in a way that a press release or ordinary rebuttal would never have achieved. 

So does this mean that the advice about avoiding fights with guys that buy ink by the barrel is no longer valid? Not quite. 

First off, Walmart, which is the frequent target of a wide array of critics, is a special case. When other people routinely use you as a punching bag, you might be entitled now and again to punch back. Especially if you punch with some flair, as Tovar did.

However, for most companies and organizations, staging a public quarrel with the media usually doesn't turn out so well. You appear defensive. And you often don't get the last word. Depending on your ability to project your protest, you might not even get noticed.

There are constructive avenues to express concern or correct facts. Most publications will afford someone the chance to rebut an editorial or respond to a major story aimed at them. A well-reasoned op-ed becomes a valuable PR tool well beyond its publication date. It can be shared with stakeholders and customers, and it can be posted on a website. It even can be the basis for a special-purpose website that tells your side of the story in more detail, with supportive validation.

Fact errors in stories, investigative reports and editorials are fair game to seek corrections. Most reporters and editors don't intentionally make fact errors and appreciate it when someone brings mistakes to their attention. It helps to be polite and to have your documentation in hand. Reporters won't just take your word for it.

Reading stories online, especially as soon as possible after they are posted, gives you the best chance to correct an error before it shows up in print. This happens to be one advantage of the 24/7 news cycle in which reporters post their stories online, regardless of print deadlines. If you think of online posts as an opportunity to "preview" a story before it's printed, you can save yourself a lot of hair-pulling. My experience is that reporters and editors will make online corrections if you reach them in time and present them with your facts.

The one trouble spot with the Walmart response is that it will encourage CEOs who feel maltreated by the media to try to duplicate its clever riff. Bad idea. Walmart's response was actually aimed at columnist Tim Egan, not the New York Times itself. Egan was stating a point of view and Walmart challenged his facts. That's something lots of people do, including other columnists.

Most companies don't have as much throw-weight as Walmart to turn something like "Fact Check" into a newsjacking media opportunity. For them, a rebuttal may come off as an angry screed published in an obscure corner of cyberspace.

Walmart's gambit made its point, almost despite the specific "edits" suggested by Tovar. For just about everyone else, it is better to stick with your facts and make sure you tell your own story or ask reporters to correct their inaccuracies.