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Number 10 bans certain media from its briefings. So what happens if you fall out with a journalist?
February 11, 2020

Following their well publicised falling out last week it’ll be interesting to see how relations between the Number 10 press office and the lobby fare over the next few days.

One of the issues we often look at during our media courses is what to do when relationships between an organisation and a journalist come under strain.  What do you do if a journalist writes something about you that is untrue?  Or their coverage seems to be biased against you?  How do you a handle a journalist who seems to be out to get you?

Our advice is to engage with journalists, however unhelpful and disobliging they appear to be.  Refusing to talk to them can look churlish and it only serves to wind them up.  If, anything, depending on how important they are, we recommend going out of your way to talk to them, to find out what they’re writing about and to explore how you can help them.

Why will a journalist pick a fight with you?

There are usually two reasons why a particular journalist will pick a fight with you.  The first might be a personal grudge.  Have you annoyed them in the past?  Legend has it, for instance, that one tabloid newspaper editor had a bad experience as the customer of a double glazing firm and so he instructed his reporters to investigate bad stories about the company.  Again, by talking to the journalist you might be able to understand why they’ve developed this resentment towards your organisation.

The second reason is the more likely one.  Some younger journalists – especially those on the trade press – want to earn a name for themselves as tough cookies or rottweiler reporters.  Picking a fight with an organisation, writing damning stories about it and, they hope, striking to terror into the hearts of its comms team will develop their reputation, they believe.

Usually they just end up appearing slightly ridiculous.  One PR told us that having been given an unnecessary tongue lashing by one of these aggressive types she’d asked him: “Why are you doing this?” and found herself laughing.

What to do if a journalist reports something that is incorrect

What should you do, though, if a journalist reports something that is incorrect?  The Number 10 press office clearly doesn’t like what some journalists have been saying about the government and the prime minister.

The first thing advice we give to people in our media coaching sessions when this question arises is to take a step back and ask if what has been reported really is incorrect.  You might not like what’s been said but is it really factually wrong?   All of our media trainers are also working journalists and one of them remembers receiving a complaint from a company for writing something that was apparently incorrect.

In fact, he’d described the company as being “troubled.”  Given its fall is profits, a rapid turnover of senior staff and a declining share price, our media trainer/journalist had taken the view that this company was “troubled.”  Journalists are entitled to make qualitative judgements like this.

Is it factually incorrect or do you just not like what it says about you?

The second question is, if it is factually correct, how serious is the mistake?  If your profits are reported to be £2million whereas they are, in fact, £20million, you’ve got a good reason to ask for a correction.  On the other hand, if you’re quoted as the marketing director whereas you title is executive vice president of marketing, EMEA, then we’d suggest that annoying though this is, you just accept it.

So how should you ask a journalist to correct something?  The advantage of having so much content online now is that it can be corrected instantly.  The best approach is, obviously, to be polite friendly rather than aggressive.  Explain that there must have been some miscommunication and use a form of words about wanting – like the journalist – to be accurate.  Make this accuracy your common goal.  Journalists don’t mind upsetting people but they do like to get their facts right.

If they don’t reply you can then contact their editor for the same reason.  In some cases, we’ve worked with organisations that have applied a bit more pressure by talking about reviewing their advertising strategies.  In today’s media market, this can have pretty serious financial consequences.  But it only works if you advertise extensively in the trade press.  It’s also quite aggressive and so it’s a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

A journalist has attacked you – how to handle it

If you don’t like what a journalist has written and they won’t change it then one antidote is to approach a competitor outlet with the “real” story.  Explain to them how the original journalist has misinterpreted the situation and offer them something new, with great access or unpublished information.  You might also want to create your content – blogs or video – on the same issue.  The more correct information you publish the less likely the incorrect or unhelpful article is to come up early in a Google search.

Although most organisations enjoy good relations with the media for most of the time we occasionally hear some horror stories from the PR consultancies and inhouse communications teams that we work closely with on our media training courses.  Where things have gone very wrong the best recourse is to apply to the regulator.

The situation has become slightly more complicated here, since the demise of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) press regulation has fallen to two organisations.  The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) represents almost press outlets, with the exception of Financial Times and The Guardian (who have their own complaints systems) and The Independent.  It doesn’t have official approval and has been described by the privacy campaign Hacked Off as a “sham.” IMPRESS does have this approval and is fully compliant with the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry.

Whatever the reason for your disagreement with a journalist, keeping a cool head and looking to engage and find a workable solution is the best course of action.

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