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When Should Your Utility Ask for a Correction from the Media?

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Andy Gotlieb's picture
Editor of a specialty publication, former public relations practitioner, Freelancer

I hold 34 years of experience in communications, mostly in journalism, with a decade in public relations, too.  The first 17 years were spent in print journalism, where I covered, at various...

  • Member since 2016
  • 1,030 items added with 533,051 views
  • Nov 26, 2021

There’s a classic episode of “Seinfeld” that fans will recognize as the “Festivus” episode, featuring an imaginary holiday concocted by Frank Costanza, father of show mainstay George Costanza.

One of the features of the bizarre holiday is the “airing of grievances,” where participants can complain to anyone they believe wronged them.

Considering how much people like to speak their minds these days, is it worth it for your utility to complain if the media gets something wrong in its reporting?

Remember, the goal is to get lots of coverage – particularly positive coverage.

And most of the time, that happens in some form or fashion.

Unless the story is about something truly calamitous about your utility – something like awful earnings if you’re a public, gross negligence on your part or the CEO embezzling millions – staying in the public eye is a good thing.

But what happens when the media fouls up something, even in an otherwise positive story?

Yes, facts and figures may be misinterpreted or distorted. Same deal with quotes. Information can be taken completely out of context. And the headline might not match the story.

Sometimes it’s your fault: You’d be surprised at how often journalists are mistakenly fed faulty information. Sometimes the bad information is disseminated to the journalist on purpose.

And sometimes it’s the fault of the journalist. As with any profession, the quality of its members can vary significantly. The problem is exacerbated in journalism, where decimated newsrooms are largely populated by inexperienced reporters and old hacks who won’t retire because they can’t find other jobs.

So, that brings us to the meat of the matter: When should you complain?

That depends. Corrections often have a limited impact, unless a significant error occurred.

That’s because newspapers tend to stick correction boxes at the bottom of a page – which means chances are they won’t be seen. The story will be corrected online; that helps, but the number of people reading the story will decline rapidly after a couple of days.

So, the damage is done.

As for radio and TV, when a correction airs it likely will be seen/heard by a different audience from the original one. Again, the story will be corrected on the outlet’s website, but the same caveats apply.

Let’s talk about the errors themselves.

Question One:  Is it even worth complaining about?

Minor factual errors probably don’t make much of a difference in the story. If the reporter writes about how you have 272,000 customers eligible for some energy-saving program and the actual number is 274,000 customers, does it even make a difference? The point of the story is that your program got much-needed publicity.

Sure, you can mention it to the reporter, but it’s not worth being angry about. The reporter can correct it online.

Question Two: Is something actually in error?

This is where things get a little dicey. Journalists are often confronted by story subjects who claim “mistakes. Often what that means is that the reporter put a different slant on the subject or focused on something that was a relatively minor point.

It doesn’t make the story wrong.

You need to keep your expectations in check. Remember that the news outlet doesn’t work for you and isn’t going to merely mouth all your talking points. If the reporter also quotes some consumer advocate who isn’t all that excited about the aforementioned energy-saving program, it doesn’t mean the story is wrong.

Journalists ideally strive for balanced and fair reporting. In fact, tp-------0[[hey’re probably doing you a favor by writing a story in the first place.

All that said, there are certainly times when corrections are warranted. Any reporting that misspells your utility name, misidentifies key officials or makes significant errors of fact, especially if they relate to money or something criminal, should be corrected.

There’s a process you should follow in seeking a correction.

Speak to the journalist first. They should be willing to make a correction, but if he/she resists, find out the name of their supervisor. It could be the managing editor, assignment editor or news director, among other possibilities.

Explain why you think an error is made – present proof -- and ask for a correction. There’s no point in being antagonistic at this point. Reputable media outlets will generally make corrections as part of everyday protocol and avoid further ramifications.

If you run into problems, climb the outlet’s corporate ladder and consider getting the utility’s lawyers involved. This should only be for the most significant errors because legal action is expensive and take a lot of time.

There’s also no guarantee that you’ll prevail and it’s even more difficult to try to prove deliberate libel or actual malice. And if a media outlet is willing to dig in its heels (which costs money, too), that means it must believe its reporting is accurate, so you need to ask if there really is an error or just a difference of opinion.


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Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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