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Three rapid PR responses to unfair online media treatment

Sooner or later, when you toil in the realm of media relations, it's bound to happen: a media outlet is going to unfairly treat you or a client.

They will not only take information out of context, but they will mangle it beyond recognition. They will be sloppy and print inaccurate information; or they will have strived for diligence, but get hoodwinked by someone with an agenda and fabrications...and still print inaccurate information.

Another common occurrence: in the rush to meet a deadline, they will fail to give you a chance to respond to a cheap shot or an outright lie.

Often, the first line of offensive treatment is the Internet. This is partly because of the "rough draft" mentality that some news outlets still apply to cyberspace.

A case in point from a few years ago: a Chicago online-only news outlet cut-and-pasted salacious details from a public record, scrawled an inflammatory, yellow-journalism headline...and then didn't bother to go the trouble of actually contacting my client to get its side of the story. Result: a one-sided hatchet job splashed across its web site.

Compounding the problem is that the outlet is part of the same company as a print publication where my client is based. So someone at the news operation apparently figured it would be a good idea to simply copy its sister site's tabloid-style version of events without making any effort to contact my client.

The so-called news group's apparent rationale (based on dialogue that I had with some of their editors): "When we get around to publishing an article in our print edition--that's the `real' version anyhow. Be patient: we will get your side of the story."

Such illogic fails to consider the impact that Internet content has on an individual or organizational reputation. The Internet is forever and everywhere. The notion that any news organization would "get to the other side" later, at the news group's convenience, is troubling. It shifts the burden of ethical conduct from the journalist to the source, who must be a watchdog on a news organization's distressing indifference to things like fairness and news judgment.

On top of that, the news group drew extra attention to the story with a sensationalistic headline that took a highy questionable assertion and portrayed it as fact. Again, this was in the headline--often the only portion that people will see.

Only after I complained loudly did this news group revise the headline. And in this online environment, consider this additional fuel to the prematurely posted fire: a reporter with this news group had Tweeted about the story, putting even more spotlight on not only the news group's amateurish actions, but on the one-sided allegations.

So what are some steps that a publicist can take? Here are three:

1. Create a timeline of the episode: when the story first appeared online, when it was disseminated in any other manner, such as social media, and when you became aware of the story. Be sure to take screenshots capturing the offending activity. In short, demonstrate to the news outlet what it means to be an attentive reporter. In shining a light on their lack of professionalism, you will want to be able to specifically point to dates, times and events.

2. Request that the news organization remove the story--until and unless it carries out its responsibility to go to the bother of actually committing an act of journalism (you know, those old-fashioned notions like fairness, balance and thoroughness).

Even if the news outlet agrees to do so, much damage has already been done. But our responsibility includes limiting that damage. On the other hand, the news outlet can refuse your request. If so, document their refusal.

Related to the creation of a timeline noted above, that refusal can become a part of another story that you write--or persuade a more reputable outlet to cover--sometime down the road about the damage that an out-of-touch, irresponsible news group can inflict.

3. Consider writing a letter to the editor or a commentary/op-ed piece.

This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you may want to expose the publication's reprehensible conduct as you defend your client. On the other hand, the publication has already demonstrated some impoverished judgment and ethics, so raging against them can make matters worse in the future.

Tread carefully in this phase: you may be better off writing a letter to people who hold some sway over those who run the outlet's day-to-day operations, such as a board of directors, investors or other influential parties.