Correct me if I’m wrong

You think you know which stories will generate the heat. You assume it’s going to be the three-part series you’ve been working on for month, or the profile that exposes never-before-heard truths about your subject. Instead, it always ends up being the piece you churned out at the last minute, the

one you thought you could sleepwalk through. The story you did because there was nothing else going on that day.

The latest flare-up came after we published a routine case study: just a Canadian company that’s using someone’s product. In the story, the user mentioned that they had considered using another vendor’s product — let’s call them Vendor B. Once the piece ran, however, Vendor B’s PR firm started calling our writer, telling the writer that they had tried to win that user’s business but hadn’t gotten their phone calls returned. They wanted a clarification. They wouldn’t stop calling.

Once it eventually got passed over to me (and these things should always go to the editor, not the writer), I was told that Vendor B had gotten several calls on this issue, and that, in the PR person’s opinion, this was proving “”quite damaging”” to their reputation. I encouraged them to write a letter to the editor outlining their take. That wasn’t good enough. I explained that we had obtained this information on the record from the user, whom we had no reason not to believe, and that in any case it would hard to prove either side. They agreed to write a letter, though at press time I have yet to receive it.

There are some journalists who get noticeably excited when the subject of a story (or even an indirect subject, as was the case here) takes issue with their work. It’s not just anger, or outrage. They take a certain perverse pleasure in feeling that they’ve “”stirred it up”” enough to get someone angry, thereby proving, I suppose, that they are a tough, investigative reporter. In most cases, though, these aren’t Watergate-level takedowns. These are misunderstandings over a product’s features, or the way a deal was brokered, or the details of a company strategy.

Few journalists take any pity on the communications person who has to argue on their client’s behalf. This is the worst of jobs, and few of them relish it. Everybody wants a retraction, and in some cases an apology. These flacks know they will be immediately putting hacks on the defensive, potentially jeopardizing a cordial professional relationship they’ve taken years to nurture.

Our policy is simple: We print a retraction if we’re wrong. It’s happened, more than I care to admit. With an online publication like ITBusiness.ca, we have the luxury of actually “”fixing”” mistakes as though they never appeared in the first place. In print, we use the same “”corrections”” box deployed by newspapers around the world.

Clarifications are trickier. In some cases these are not “”mistakes”” but information that for one reason for another was left out. In some cases, the remaining facts might have been badly articulated, making a clarification necessary. There are companies, however, who are determined to make the most of the branding opportunities our coverage allows them, and wants us to print clarifications that don’t offer helpful information to readers but merely paraphrase their tag line. We don’t do those.

Most editors would rather run a letter to the editor. Companies should prefer them too, because unlike corrections or clarifications, they can be written by the public relations person and vetted by the angry company. Unless they are more than, say, 200 words, we are likely to print them almost verbatim. It also allows us to run an editor’s note underneath the letter that explains why we published what we did — all of which devotes more space to clearing up the problem than any 50-word correction would likely allow. More importantly, it demonstrates to our readers that we strive to treat criticism of our work in as open and transparent a way as possible.

It is a source of longstanding irony among PR people that journalists love to point out other people’s mistakes but are highly sensitive to any reference to their own screwups. We’re trying to work on that, and I think we’re getting better as an industry. But nobody’s perfect.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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