How to Communicate With an Ombudsman

Communications executives have an increasing number of tools in their arsenals with the advent of digital media. These are in addition to their old reliable media pitching techniques. While all of these options make media relations efforts more robust, they also make it easy to overlook opportunities that may seem archaic against the backdrop of new media, but are in fact still very relevant. For example, an endorsement or the airing of an issue by a media ombudsman can enhance any communications program’s outreach efforts.

In addition to submitting op-eds, letters to the editor, opinion editorials or scheduling a meeting to request full editorial endorsement from a media outlet, letters can also be addressed directly to ombudsman for support. It’s an oft-overlooked channel of access, perhaps simply because the new guard of PR pros don’t know what ombudsmen actually do.

Ombudsmen take action on issues of accuracy, fairness, tone and balance submitted by newspaper readers or radio listeners. The public, private agencies, government agencies and other organizations may raise these issues regarding fairness of stories and policies or procedures of media outlets.

While ombudsmen generally do not make direct decisions, they do make recommendations to editors and management. The ombudsman occupies a position of moral persuasion rather than one of absolute authority, and these positions are often published. This is a good way to reach community leaders who are more apt to read the editorials and op-eds.

Ombudsman also exist to protect fairness and, while there is no precise definition of fairness, their role in institutions involves:
•    Providing a forum for the public and protecting their right to be heard.

•    Providing access to an unbiased decision-maker.

•    Serving as the media outlet’s safety valve to ensure that it acts fairly.

•    Taking into account individual circumstances when decisions/determinations are made.

•    Resolving issues when there is no specific policy or procedure in place. Ombudsmen know that it’s impossible to have a rule for all circumstances or to anticipate everything that might happen.

•    Conducting discussions and making recommendations in private without any publicity.

•    Promoting the establishment of complaint and review mechanisms within the media outlet that build upon a framework for consistent application of fairness standards.

•    Being accessible and willing to act quickly and efficiently to resolve current issues.

•    Reviewing the code of conduct, the copyright and quote policy and advertiser relations policies, guidelines and processes for fairness, etc., and updating these documents appropriately.

•    Publishing articles and operating a dedicated Web site related to fairness and accuracy to make the public more aware of the ethics standards that have been established and that continue to mature.
•    Working with media outlet management across all of its offices to ensure a culture of responsiveness and compliance throughout the company.

Keep in mind that ombudsmen will put themselves in the complainant’s position. They shouldn’t necessarily advocate on the complainant’s behalf, but they will think in terms of how the particular experience must have “felt” or “was dealt with” by the person. So, when communicating with an ombudsman, be clear about the human and social consequences of the matter you want to discuss.

For example, if someone said to an ombudsman, “I didn’t like the third paragraph of a story about the plan for the new bridge,” or simply, “I don’t think we should build the bridge,” typically the ombudsman would say, “I’m sorry, but we can’t help you.”
On the other hand, if this person said, “I noticed the proposed site of the new bridge will require the removal of the old bank building, which would take away some of the character of that part of our city,” there would be a critical distinction.

In conclusion, communications professionals should remember that the support or the airing of a special perspective from the ombudsman can expand the reach of an issue.

This article was written by James Onder, a communications trainer. He can be reached at