Media Relations: What To Do When Youre Misquoted

When ABC News anchor Peter Jennings announced he had lung cancer last month, reporters who cover the media went into breaking news mode.

What did it mean to the future of network news, they wondered? What would ABC News do to recover from the tragic announcement? And what sources could they talk to who would fill them in on the latest rumblings at ABC?

That's when my phone rang. A reporter from PR Week, a prestigious public relations magazine, was ready to interview me. As a former ABC News production coordinator, they thought I might have something to say.

Since the reporter and I had corresponded over e-mail prior to her call, I knew the call would be coming. I took some time to prepare my comments, the same way I coach my clients to do so.

But when the story came out, something had gone terribly awry.

Here's what the author wrote:

"Brad Phillips, a former production coordinator for Nightline who now owns his own PR firm, said the network made a mistake in not grooming an obvious successor for Jennings. 'The day of the star anchor is over,' he said. 'The news about Peter Jennings may be the tipping point that dismantles the news division.'"

Note that last line. Here's what I actually said:

"The sad news about Peter Jennings may be the tipping point that devastates the news division."

Far from proclaiming that ABC News was dismantling its news division, I was saying that the loss could be a deeply hurtful blow for ABC.

Upon reading the article, some Nightline producers walked out of their offices, saying, "Did you see what Brad Phillips said?" They thought one of their own was rubbing the bad news in even further. The only problem, of course, is that I didn't say it.

So how can a full-time media trainer have his quotes reported inaccurately? Simply put, it happens. This is a business of percentages, not perfection, and whenever you're dealing with another person, in this case a reporter, there is a margin of error. But since this was the first misquote I've ever had after dozens of successful interviews through the years, it reinforces that being well prepared for interviews almost always works.

Still, I now personally understand how frustrating it feels to have your name followed by words you didn't say, and I had to temper my instinct to respond with the advice I've always given my clients.

First, I tell clients, the closer you are to a story, the more inaccurate it appears.

Second, if they respond to an error that the reporter regards as a nitpicking point, it could alienate that journalist for future stories.

Third, if a correction is ultimately published, you've then widened the number of people who are aware of the original error ? those who read it the first time, and those who read it as part of the correction.

To be clear, corrections are sometimes warranted. In this case, I didn't deem this infraction serious enough to request one. Instead of assuming the reporter spiced up my quote to add more drama to her story, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt that she had just made an honest mistake.

Ultimately, I did what I tell my clients to do. I contacted my friends at ABC News directly to tell them what happened. I decided not to correct the record with the reporter, since I'd rather have her as an ally for future stories. And the most important thing I will not do, which many clients understandably want to do in these circumstances, is avoid the phone the next time a reporter calls. It's the wrong response. When properly prepared, you'll get it right the vast majority of the time. And I'll take those odds every time.

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.

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