THAT’S ENOUGH: Five steps you need to know about complaining about a news story

I was a journalist for 12 years and worked in and around a council press office for another eight years.

It’s become clear to me that media relations remains an important part of the comms team’s armoury. Print may have fallen but in many areas reader numbers remain buoyant online.

It’s not uncommon to have potentially 70 per cent of the population in an area seeing content from a newspaper at least once in the past week.

Local news stories are all over social media, for example. Pop into a Facebook group and its never long before you see a link.

Strategically, its clear that the skills that used to be common in comms teams have dissipated.

Confidence in dealing with the media is at a low ebb which is why I’ve launched a workshop that refines the idea of media relations.

In this post, here’s a few steps in making a complaint.

What kind of relationship do you want?

Somewhere on YouTube there’s a clip of Peter Mandelson bollocking a reporter for not running a story in the way that he wants. Spin was in the ascendancy and acceptable reporting was rewarded with access. Of course it still goes on but for the benefit of this I’m not going near it.

How and if you make a complaint is dictated by what kind of relationship you want with the reporter and the news outlet.

Is it going to be a long running relationship? Or is this the only time you’ll speak to them? What do you want to achieve by complaining?

Certainly, I spent a lot of time in my career listening to aggrieved people and explaining to them that they didn’t really have a leg to stand on and no, I wouldn’t be reporting that reporter to the now defunct Press Complaints Commission for reporting what they said.

However, I spent a lot of time pulling up reporters who were trying to cut corners and not do their job at my organisation’s expense.

EXCLUSIVE: Reporters don’t like complaints

Here’s a secret. When I was a journalist, despite the united front appearance, I needed a complaint like a hole in the head.

At best, it was a ball ache and at worst a complaint potentially career ending. A reporter needs to go back over the ground, write a briefing note, speak to news editors or editors some of them may hate their guts.

So, how to go about it?

Step one: facts

Get your facts right.

Go over the ground paragraph by paragraph and line by line with the person in your organisation who is most irritated by the content.

Factual inaccuracies are there to be challenged.

Someone angry that the reporter is covering an agenda without their permission is going up the wrong tree.

Does the piece tell the whole story?

Is there even a benefit for telling the whole story?

Step two: have a conversation

Now you’ve got your facts marshalled, you can have a conversation with the reporter in question.

Set out why you are cheesed off and importantly get a sense of what you’d like to happen as a result.

Be wary of the ‘X hits back at claims that Y’ follow-up as you are at risk of re-inforcing the inaccuracy.

You can do this over the phone best, in my experience.

If step two doesn’t work, its time to think of step three.

Step three: Go public

If the reporter is unrepentant, its time to be pro-active.

The BBC Press Office are past masters at this.

It’s a chance to point out publicly what is wrong and why it is wrong.

Bear in mind that this should not be the first step to take. It’s you being hard but firm and drawing a line in the sand over what is acceptable and what is not.

It’s down to you when to deploy it but it absolutely should be part of your armoury.

Handled wall his shouldn’t be the end of the relationship.

I once used this over a story claiming a swimming pool had put dark tint over the window of a swimming pool because Muslims had complained on religious grounds.

The story attracted right wing extremists and needed to be challenged but the reporter refused to amend his story so we put out the facts on Twitter and asked people to decide for themselves what the truth was.

It didn’t end well for the newspaper, with a mild pile-on on the newspaper.

The next piece they carried on the subject was balanced.

I rest my case.

Step four: the almost nuclear option

If the first three steps aren’t working then its time for step four. The official complaint to the regulatory body.

There’s two routes to take. IPSO which regulates largely regional media. Then there’s IMPRESS which regulates largely hyperlocal media and a few titles. The BBC have their own complaints process as do many other other national titles. Reach has an editor’s code of practice which it invites people to measure their reporting against.

This is going to take time and resources and represents a break in a relationship.

Step five: the nuclear option

Law.

This is the final step to take and not one to take lightly. Elton John did it with The Sun. Meghan Markle did it with the Daily Mail. It’s going to be very expensive to even consider down this path and the liklihood is you may have a lengthy career without ever darkening a media lawyer’s door.

If you feel as though you may need to my advice is to engage the services of media law expert David Banks. He is a former editor of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and is a media law expert. He’s going to know more on the subject than your legal team.

In conclusion

Journalists and press officers have never got along swimmingly all the time. There’s always been friction. You can have a good relationship but sometimes you aren’t going to see eye to eye.

Reporters are there to do a job to try and report what they see as a story and sometimes you’ll have to politely explain that to people in the organisation.

The job of media relations is to represent the interests of the organisation.

If you have are going to have a relationship with journalists you’ll need to know the basics of how and when to make your views known.

You can find out more about the ESSENTIAL MEDIA RELATIONS workshop here.

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