Three times you’ll get bad coverage and what to do about it

A spilled ice cream cone

Working with the media, you’re not always going to get the story you want.

That’s fair, since it isn’t a reporter’s job to uncritically cover the specific piece of news you want covered.

However, sometimes, you’re going to get bad coverage. It’s a fact of media relations.

Once a story is published in print, there is little you can do to change it. Corrections are rare.

Besides, how many consumers check the next day’s corrections after reading a blaring headline?

It’s important to know not all bad coverage is created equal. Here are three different types of bad coverage and what you can do about it.

1. Missing information

This first one is the easiest. Sometimes, a reporter will leave a key piece of information out of the story. 

Since so many stories are written for online publication, once I see the web story is up, I will email the reporter with a nice note and then mention that there was extra information we had previously discussed that readers might want to  know.

It’s important that your request is relevant to readers. A reporter will be more willing to add extra information if it’s directly relevant to the readership.

Sometimes, if the story is technical in nature, I’ll offer to take a look at the story — not to vet it for favourability — but to ensure the technical portions are well represented. 

This is an opportunity to emphasize any points you think are missing.

Another consideration is timeliness.

You want to make sure the web story is updated, and you also want to make sure the story is updated for tomorrow’s print run.

It doesn’t hurt to ask if it will be updated. That way, if you think it won’t make it, you can update your executive in advance and propose a solution.

Lastly, if you see web coverage on a radio station’s site, make sure to tune into the news broadcast. Sometimes, team reading the news every hour won’t have the updated web story and may need a reminder as well. Sometimes, the reverse is true: the news team has the latest but no one has updated the web.

While rare, it’s important to make sure all your bases are covered.

2. The sensational headline

One Monday morning, a few years ago, I distributed a media release hoping it would get widespread, balanced coverage. 

It definitely got widespread coverage but for all the wrong reasons.

It began when a radio station tweeted out a headline for the web story of a radio interview I had just given. 

The headline did not match the facts of the story. Nonetheless, it went viral. 

All other outlets in the province saw this traffic-driving headline and wanted in on the action.

I spent the morning giving media interviews and the afternoon correcting headlines.

It’s important to note that reporters rarely write their own headlines. That’s the job of the editor. In many cases, the print editor and web editors will even create different headlines for the same story.

You are more likely to see a sensationalist headline in the web version of a story rather than the print version. 

It is what it is: clickbait.

In this case, I tracked all our coverage. For each story with a sensational headline, a member of my team or I would call up a news room or email the editor and let them know that the headline was inaccurate. I would lay out the facts, based on key messages. 

Each one of them changed their headlines, no questions asked.

They had gotten the morning news coverage and clicks they needed and understood the need to portray the story accurately. 

It was important to do this quickly. I wanted to make sure the headline was changed before the sensationalism was embedded in Google News forever by the search engine’s web crawlers.

3. The one-sided story angle

Sometimes, a reporter is so focused on a story angle that they won’t let the facts get in the way of what they want to cover.

They believe that other sources for a story are so strong that it will override a piece of information you have provided. 

Typically, without that one-sided angle, there’s really not much of a story.

If you experience this, usually the reporter has invested so much time in the story that it’s too late to back out, even though they should.

That’s why I like to send emailed statements. If I have to do a phone interview, I will be sure to follow up with a recap email, if it’s a sensitive story and I fear the reporter has an agenda.

Like the inaccurate headline, If the story angle is one-sided, I will usually follow up with an email reminding the reporter of the organization’s position and the facts from our point of view.

In this case, if the facts are truly misrepresented, and the reporter will not change the story, I will get in touch with an editor. 

This should be a last resort.

Think of the last time someone went straight to your boss with a problem you felt that you could have handled yourself. 

If you wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t do it to a reporter.

So, only do this in cases of major misrepresentation. 

An alternative is to engage an ally — a supportive stakeholder or advocate for your organization — to help correct the record. 

This is PR 101 and it’s also a reminder why PR and media relations skills are both part of a well-rounded practice.

On the other hand, if you’re with a large organization, don’t fret over small details.

I’ve had executives push for corrections to stories that weren’t a big deal. I warned against this since it can come off as insecure, petty or bullying, especially from a large organization.

Sometimes you just have to let the small stuff slide. Save your powder for when it matters.

As a communicator, you should be equipped to handle bad coverage the right way. Remember, regardless of the type of inaccuracy, the principle of respectful media relations still applies.