Getting Off the Front Page, Not Reporter Revenge

Screaming at a reporter or plotting revenge won't help you or your client deal with the issues and difficulties of negative press coverage.A reporter writes a negative story about your company, your boss or you. If getting even is the first thing that comes to mind, take a deep breath, go for a walk and find a better strategy.

Almost anything would be better than revenge.

If you think the reporter got key facts wrong or misinterpreted them, call the reporter and chat. Speak plainly. Have some evidence at hand that you can share to substantiate your point. For egregious fact errors, most responsible reporters will agree to a correction. For less significant errors, it may be enough to wise up the reporter so the mistake isn't repeated.

Occasionally a reporter is obstinate and won't acknowledge an error. You can take the next step and talk to his or her editor to press your case.

Negative stories are usually earned. Instead of calling a reporter to harangue them for writing a negative story, provide them with context. Conversations like this can build rapport, especially if you approach them in a calm tone and share what information you can.

In my years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I fielded lots of calls with complaints. The people who shouted at me didn't do much for their cause. Those who adopted a constructive approach and pointed out errors or omissions got somewhere, especially in a story that was more than a one-day wonder. Subsequent reports, even if they remained overall negative, were more sensitive to key points raised by callers. As a PR practitioner, I have tried to remember my own experience on the other end of the phone line. I make clear who I represent and what concerns I have. I offer evidence or corroboration for my points and ask how I can be of assistance in future coverage. There have been times when reporters called me back seeking assistance and I was able to steer them into productive directions. Other times, I wasn't able to help and I did my best to explain why.

At a bare minimum, the most valuable byproduct of candid conversations with reporters is a sense of where they are coming from and what it will take to make the bad news old news. One of the best examples involved a continuing siege of front-page stories about my client. My conversation with the investigative reporter gave me insight into what he viewed as the central issue. I confronted my client and his attorney with what it would take to put the story into the past tense. The client agreed and, with my help, issued a statement admitting at least partial responsibility. The admission, which the client was going to make later in court, appeared in print and the stories stopped.

My client's first instinct was to cut off the investigative reporter and not talk to him. I explained all that would accomplish is make the stories even more one-sided and do greater damage to my client's reputation. He grudgingly agreed.

Engaging with the reporter showed the way out of the media nightmare. My client and his legal counsel showed courage and moxie by taking the only exit available from more bad press. They didn't get revenge, but they also didn't get more bad headlines.