Last week, Jessica Lessin, a well-respected tech journalist who earlier this year launched the news site The Information, wrote a thoughtful piece on why Misleading Pushback on Media Reports Does Nobody Good. The post cited several high profile stories on brands such as Nike, Amazon and Square, that the subjects publicly denied – though Lessin’s whole point is that their PR statements were open to interpretation and trying to put the best spin on reports that, ultimately, were true.
“Many don't dispute the underlying facts,” she wrote. “Instead, they try to obscure them. Others use words that could mean multiple things to multiple people.”
While non-denial denials and outright lies to the media are nothing new, I’m sorry to say, Lessin posits that what is new is the increasing frequency and more aggressive ways that companies are distancing themselves from reports they don’t like, in part because bad news spreads faster than ever and they have new platforms to do so – such as twitter.
She is right about all of that. And while she acknowledges that some believe lower journalism standards means there are more false stories floating around, I agree with her that there are many reporters and editors who are great at what they do, including finding scoops.
But as a former journalist myself, I looked closely at both sides of the stories Lessin presented in her piece. Often, the reports she referenced were based on unnamed sources about potential business developments that could be characterized as embryonic or even speculative, though framed as a done deal.
For example, from a CNET piece that Nike disputed: “Nike is gearing up to shutter its wearable-hardware efforts, and the sportswear company this week fired the majority of the team responsible for the development of its FuelBand fitness tracker, a person familiar with the matter told CNET.” Then there was this Wall Street Journal story: “Google Inc. discussed a possible acquisition of Square earlier this year, according to three people familiar with the matter. Those talks followed a meeting in 2012 between top Google and Square executives to discuss a possible takeover, according to two people familiar with the matter. It isn't clear whether the talks are continuing.” Of course, Square denied the report.
When I was a business editor, no one was allowed to publish a story based on unnamed sources. There are often other ways to get news on the record, or you worked your sources until they agreed to go on the record, or you found multiple proof points so the information was not just based on that unnamed source.
But then, even 5 or 10 years ago, journalists had the luxury of more time to work their beats for scoops. Today, reporters are under the gun to file more stories every day, with great pressure to be first – sometimes being compensated by the number of clicks their pieces get or whether they move financial markets (that’d be Bloomberg.)
Journalists are operating in the same connected world pressure cooker as the businesses they cover. And writing stories based on unnamed sources provides leeway for people to dispute it. I’m not saying it’s right. Just that it’s true.
Regardless, here is some advice for those companies that have unwanted news reported about them.
1. Ask yourself: Is it really wrong? If so, you should absolutely ask for a correction first, by providing evidence to the contrary. That way, the un-doing of the story is as official as the initial piece.
2. If the piece is mostly right but it just made you angry or bruised your ego, do nothing but call the reporter and talk it through on background. Explain what was wrong. Build a relationship. Tell them the situation so that the next time they write, they will get it right or give you a chance to respond within the article.
3. If there is a more nuanced response needed and the reporter refuses to include it – which would be bad journalism – it is fair game to post a blog on the topic and spread it on social media, tagging the journalist.
4. If you were not quoted in the original story – and did not know the story was going to be published – try to find out why. If it is because you never returned the call – then it’s your bad because that would be the first and best opportunity to correct mistakes or offer that more nuanced explanation above. It is essential to have relationships with reporters, in the same way that businesses develop relationships with analysts or other important influencers in their sector.
5. And finally, consider whether your public response to a negative story will embarrass you in a few days, weeks or months. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut and stay off twitter.