Shortly after 26 children and adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, CNN reported the suspect as Ryan Lanza. Dozens of news outlets and blogs repeated that information, along with several other “facts.” For example:
▪ Ryan’s mother Nancy Lanza was a teacher at the school and had been shot in the classroom.
▪ The shooter arrived at the school and headed directly to his mother’s classroom.
▪ Ryan’s brother was found dead in Hoboken, NJ.
As we now know, all of that that information was incorrect. In fact, nine hours after Ryan’s brother Adam walked into Sandy Hook Elementary and committed the mass murder, much of what was being reported by the Associated Press, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC was wrong.
Then there’s the Boston Marathon bombing. Two days after the incident, CNN told viewers that a suspect had been taken into custody. Ditto the Associated Press. The Boston Globe went so far as reporting that the suspect had been arrested and was en route to the federal courthouse. This reporting was in error – something law enforcement authorities later indicated hurt their efforts to find the real perpetrators.
Welcome to 21st century reporting. Although these kinds of errors are the exception rather than the rule, errors in reporting are occurring with greater frequency. Understandably, distrust of the news media is at an all-time high. According to the Gallup organization, 60% of Americans say they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.
Regardless of the reasons (and there are many) for these errors, organizations today must be sure their media relations efforts include a strategy for detecting and responding to errors in reporting.
Here’s what we suggest:
1. Be sure you know what’s being said about your company in the media (both traditional and new).
Monitor the media on a regular basis, but especially when your company is involved in something newsworthy – a crisis, an issue or some other development, whether good or bad.
In some organizations, this monitoring is performed internally – usually by someone in the communications function. When we research a company prior to an assignment, we do a variety of Google and other searches to unearth information we can use in our interview and crisis simulations. One powerful tool is Yahoo Finance. Type in your company symbol or name, and then go to the Message Board to see what people (usually disgruntled employees or former employees) are saying about you. Another valuable tool is Technorati, a search engine for searching blogs. And if your company has a presence on Facebook, check it regularly for postings from “friends” who follow you. Some postings can be early warning signals.
A large number of media monitoring services also exist. Companies such as BurrellsLuce provide clients with copies of media content that is of specific interest to them. There are also companies that specialize in social media monitoring.
2. There are a number of options for responding to inaccurate reporting.
The traditional approach has been to contact the media outlet directly. This approach still has merit in some instances – for example, when the media outlet is local, the story is primarily of local interest, and the inaccuracy is quickly discovered.
In most cases, the best approach is to contact the reporter directly and point out the mistake. Your objective is to get the reporter to correct his notes and prevent future stories from repeating the error. If the error is serious, tell the reporter why the mistake is damaging and request a correction, but understand that it probably won’t get the same placement and visibility as the original story.
If your organization doesn’t have an in-house communications professional or use an outside PR counsel, be sure you know how to send out a news release. Firms such as PR Newswire can help you deliver your message (the correct one) to credentialed journalists, bloggers and others – locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.
Today, one of the most effective tools for responding to inaccurate reporting is social media – particularly Twitter and Facebook. When Ryan Lanza learned that the news media had wrongly identified him as the Newtown shooter, he instantly left work and on the bus ride home he used Facebook to defend himself. Similarly, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick learned that he was being investigated for involvement in a suspicious incident at a luxury apartment, he tweeted, “The charges made in the TMZ (celebrity gossip website) story and other stories I’ve seen are completely wrong.”
Social media have also become the information-gathering tools of choice for reporters. Sure, reporters will still visit your company’s website, but first they’ll see what they can find out about your company or your employees on Facebook. Reporters and producers covering Newtown did just that. They went straight to social media – including Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page.
Some executives still see social media in negative terms – something their opponents can use against them to target their business. And that’s certainly possible. But social media also provide the opportunity to gather information and to engage rapidly with a wide audience.
3. Inaccuracies on the web – a tough nut to crack
You’ve heard it before: “I saw it on the Internet, so it must be true.” Right! Dealing with inaccuracies on the world wide web can be particularly challenging. But if your organization is plagued by search results containing inaccurate, misleading or outdated information that can adversely affect how your company is perceived, help is available.
Online reputation management companies exist to make people and businesses look better on the Internet. One way they do this is by creating websites and social media profiles that push down negative information about their client, and create “higher-ranking,” positive content. Or they may contact the website operator hosting that negative information – asking them to remove it by appealing to their sense of fair play. Many operators will cooperate to avoid litigation.
Reputation.com, one of those companies, bills itself as the world’s leading provider of online reputation products and services. It states on its website, “We believe individuals and businesses have the right to control how they look online.” The company charges customers $1,000/year for those services.
4. Don’t overreact.
Do a realistic assessment of the error. How serious is it? Some errors warrant no action at all. Although the errors are frustrating and may even upset your management, there’s no real damage done. Also, remember that when you ask for, and get, a correction, the error might be repeated along with the correction. Take a careful, objective look at what happened, and ask yourself if it’s a “go to the mat” situation.
Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” Make sure your organization can get its boots on quickly.