Calling Out Reporters a Tightrope Act Thanks to the 24/7 News Cycle

Last week there was a flare-up with the media of near-epic proportions, as Sarah Palin called out a Wall Street Journal reporter on what was said—or wasn’t said—in an article about food prices.

This time there wasn’t an apology or retraction from the reporter, Sudeep Reddy, or the paper (ironically, whose owner happens to be Palin’s boss at Fox News). And things didn’t blow over quickly. On the contrary, the reporter struck back, tweeting that Palin was mistaken in her original assertion about the article. What’s more, the reporter retweeted a Columbia Journalism Review blog post that backed her up.

Such are the perils of calling out a reporter these days—whether you’re right or wrong. Palin will surely retain her Teflon qualities with that loyal base of hers. Yet mere mortals (and organizations) need to think twice about mixing it up with the media.

Most media dust-ups are due to a misquote or factual error—perceived or real. And with today’s 24/7 news cycle, such errors can do big damage to organizations. “Remember the China Syndrome?” asks Gary Wells of communications agency Dix & Eaton. “A nuclear meltdown that stretches to the other side of the globe—these days it’s a reputation meltdown that goes through the Earth’s core.”

That’s all the more reason, says Wells, to make sure facts are right in a story, particularly if there’s a misquote. Quick response is the key, says Wells. “If you don’t respond quickly, you may never get the chance to correct it.”

Yet opinions on this strategy vary. When broached on this subject, Scott Harris, public affairs specialist for military and international programs at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C., likes to quote Mark Twain: Never pick a fight with someone who buys his ink by the barrel. “Or today, never pick a fight with someone who uploads his files by the gigabyte,” muses Harris.

More often than not, Harris decides against asking for a correction or a retraction. “The best you’ll get is a correction on a back page that nobody will see except the person who was misquoted,” says Harris. “If it’s important to make that person feel better, we might do it, but then again you have to balance that tactic against your relationship with the reporter.”

Harris has utilized digital means to abate a potentially sensitive situation. Not long ago there was a string of construction crane accidents in New York City, and an Army Corps crane was incorrectly implicated in one of those incidents. “There wasn’t any loss of life, but we didn’t want that information out there,” says Harris.

The reporter was reluctant to retract the assertion because he had gotten it from a reliable source. “The source turned out to be a stakeholder important to us,” says Harris. “So we didn’t want to embarrass that person.”

The solution? Harris got an approved statement from Army Corps leadership, did a Google search and found the story had been picked up in eight local papers. He then posted the statement in the comments section below each article. “We used that incident to get a few positive mentions we didn’t get out before, and we were able to set the record straight,” says Harris.

Wells says that these days, communicators must be fast, meticulous and proactive in handling a misquote or misstatement of fact. He advises that even if a reporter agrees to a correction, get to your own (or your client’s) Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Web site as fast as you can to make sure the right information gets out. “You may even—if it’s really bad—create a video response and post it on YouTube,” says Wells.


Ed James, president of Cornerstone PR in New York, says that communicators need to be understanding of today’s reporters. “They are under pressure to get stories out—sometimes five or 10 a day. “With that kind of output there will be errors.” From an agency standpoint, one firm Cornerstone rule is to contact the client right away. “We say that we aren’t happy with the situation, and here’s what we’re going to do about it,” says James. Of course, what to do about it is the million dollar question (for some specific questions from Wells to ask yourself before you take some action, see the sidebar).

Much of that decision is based on your relationship with the reporter, says Wells. “If it’s not a damaging issue, we’ll often let it go until the next time we talk to the reporter and say, ‘This is what you wrote, but we think that this is what was really said,’” says Wells. The last thing we want to do is cause a problem for a reporter or a blogger.” And that conversation is offline with the reporter, not their editor, says Wells. “In the end, with the beat reporter, you have to live with them going forward.”

James cautions against overreacting to incidents. “A lot of times I’ll let it go because you might be calling attention to something that nobody has seen,” he says. “Three or four media pickups might seem like a lot, but with Google alerts, Tweetdeck and RSS feeds in your face, you’re prone to panic. Don’t do it.”

Harris believes that no reporter would deliberately misquote someone.

“If you can be their ally, then that bodes very well for the relationship long-term,” he says.


Smith says there’s much you can do before an interview to prevent a misquote. He often works with engineers and scientists who talk in technical terms, and frequently get misquoted. “Many times it’s a scientific fact that reporters get wrong,” explains Harris.

“The general public wouldn’t even spot the inaccuracy, but the scientist doesn’t want his peers to think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” So Harris provides reporters with fact sheets beforehand, and offers to fact check the story.

Further, Harris says that when he arranges interviews with senior government officials, he asks the reporter if he can record the proceedings. Wells agrees with this tactic. “It’s the only foolproof way to protect yourself,” he says. [Note: No source for this story requested to record the interview.]

James stresses follow-up communications. “Send an e-mail that restates what was said in the interview,” says James. “Also say ‘feel free to contact me for any clarifications or corrections.’”

Most important, says Wells, is do your homework, whether it be for a broadcast journalist or a blogger. “Any time a company exec gets a request from journalist, the journalist has done the homework, so you need to do the same,” he says.

If you don’t prepare, says James, prepare for the worst. “Karl Rove can be talking to the European press, but today that story will go worldwide in seconds,” he says. “So the amount of preparation required by PR has been magnified tenfold.”

Such preparation, though, could prevent a China Syndrome scenario. PRN

[Editor’s Note: For more articles on media relations, visit the PR News Subscriber Resource Center at]


Gary Wells, [email protected]; Scott Harris, [email protected]; Ed James, [email protected].

Pressing a Reporter on an Error: When to Make a Move

Gary Wells, senior managing director at communications agency Dix & Eaton, has had some brushes with the media in the past. If a reporting error is egregious, Wells will insist on a correction. But, he says, there are gray areas, and times when you should back off. Wells stresses that whatever you decide, make the decision quickly. Here are some questions to ask yourself if faced with a misquote or misstatement:

• Is the error just too egregious to ignore?

• Will it cause a ripple throughout your various audiences?

• Will it lead to people having the wrong perception of your brand or organization?

• Will people be making decisions about your organization based on this error?

“If the answer to all of these questions is no, then you might just as well let it go,” says Wells.