19 April 2017
Helen Westgate, Director & Founder

Do media retractions work? Or should you just move on?

The Press

Recently we have seen a number of media outlets issuing high profile "media retractions", statements outlining how they have inaccurately reported a story and have now reached a settlement with the individuals or organisations concerned.

Is a knee jerk reaction the answer?
But these statements, particularly when they are in response to a well-known personality, can sometimes generate even more publicity about the incident in question. This is why I would question whether a "knee jerk" response to get the media to publicly take back what they have already reported is always the right response if you want to build a positive reputation. Sometimes this will only make the story stay even longer in the public consciousness – after weeks of negotiations some media retractions appear when the story has all but faded from public interest. Then, the statement is published and brings the story right back into full technicolour for everyone to read about all over again.

But are these media retractions really effective as reputation management tools? It is true that in the short term they will give the claimants the satisfaction of shutting down a media pipeline of potentially more damaging stories, however, are readers ever convinced and how effective are they in the longer term? Are readers ever really convinced anyway by the alternative version of events as presented in a retraction statement?

In my view most readers will probably think "well they're only saying that because they have been forced to" which will probably not change their view of the reported truth so far anyway.

An alternative approach
As a PR professional, I would always recommend a more below the radar approach – developing an alternative pipeline of positive news stories and briefings with trusted media partners, supplying key journalists with the facts so that they can then produce more balanced articles. This strategy will then generate a stream of alternative editorial content to counterbalance any inaccurate stories that are in the public domain. Most importantly this new content will also be published with the third party endorsement of respected editorial outlets, so that readers will feel that the content is inevitably more credible than one that has only been published as the result of legal and financial muscle.

But getting media outlets to issue these "media retractions" seems to becoming increasingly popular at the moment with a number of high profile individuals, as they probably feel that by doing so they regain an element of editorial control. They will brief their PR and legal teams to contact the editorial team in question, demand that the story be taken down and then, if this request is not met, they will issue legal proceedings, along with a claim for financial damages. 

If the legal claim goes through successfully, the media outlet in question will then be forced to publish the statement or media retraction. 

Draft that statement very carefully
You could view this as rather a humiliating scenario for respected journalist teams, having to admit publicly that they got the story wrong in the first place. But that would to vastly underestimate the journalistic skill of those writers that will be drafting and issuing the media retraction.

When you view some media retractions you wonder whether the PR team were even involved in its negotiation and drafting of them – a legal agreement is not designed for the media. Sometime these statements really just tell the story again, summarising very clearly the elements of the story in question, along with a clear message that the statement that "they got it wrong" was only issued after they were forced to reach a legal and financial settlement.

Less is more
If you have to resort to asking a media outlet for a media retraction, and sometimes this can be the only option in really extreme cases where clearly an article contains libellous inaccuracies, the wording of the statement must be very carefully crafted. This really comes down to how they are negotiated by both the PR and the legal teams working together. As I have already said, what you don't want is a lengthy retraction statement, which basically repeats the same story again. The ideal media retraction statements should only consist of one or two sentences, just summing up the agreement and stating in brief why the claim was made in the first place.

It's never really over
The key piece of advice that I would give any clients pushing for a media retraction is that these statement will never really close down a negative story. In our digital world, once it has hit the online highway the story is out there in the public consciousness, even if you get the content taken down or get the media to issue statements to the contrary. The best approach is to recognise this media reality and move on, generating as much positive content to strengthen your reputation, so that that you firmly place a question mark for readers over any future negative stories about you.



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