Avoid a Correction Mistake: 7 Lessons from the American Red Cross Feud with ProPublica & NPR

By on Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Requesting a correction to a news story is a delicate business – and it’s easy for even a well-branded and iconic nonprofit organization to make a mistake. The American Red Cross recently sent a 12-page list of corrections to ProPublica and NPR over an investigative  series highlighting serious concerns about its operations and stewardship of funds from the public.

The stories say that the CEO of the American Red Cross mis-led the public about what percentage of the charity’s donations went to assist people in need (not 91% as claimed), that emergency response vehicles were diverted for public relations purposes during Hurricane Sandy (appalling to me and many I’m sure), and that response trucks were told to drive around in disaster areas just to appear to be delivering aid (appalling again). The stories outlined a variety of failures during responses to Hurricane Isaac and Hurricane Sandy, including food waste.

Clearly the series shook the foundations of one of America’s most well-known brands, because who sends a 12-page list of corrections? The ProPublica and NPR journalists published an online rebuttal saying their reporting was “scrupulously fair” and also did a podcast in response. The hubbub drew even more attention to the series from the likes of KPBS and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The situation begs more than few questions, but I’ll only ask two. What could the American Red Cross have hoped to gain from sending ProPublica and NPR a 12-page list of corrections months after the original reporting had happened? And what can we learn from this situation to help us avoid mistakes when requesting a correction?

Lesson #1: Always remember that you never pick an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel. You are treading on dangerous ground when you ask for a correction. Remember it. Journalists pride themselves on being accurate and you are questioning the validity of their reporting just by asking for a correction  (even if you are right) – so you are automatically starting in a difficult spot.  Tred lightly.

Lesson #2: Don’t be heavy-handed. Be as brief as possible. Fourteen pages of corrections is overkill. Edit yourself down as much as possible.

Lesson #3: Don’t wait to ask for corrections until long after the story has aired or published. Ask right away. And don’t belabor the point. Some of these concerns had been previously highlighted by the American Red Cross in a press release in late October highlighting “myths” in the reporting. Sending a lengthy correction list in 2015 months after the original stories aired comes across as organizational sour grapes.

Lesson #4: Only request corrections for factual errors that make the story fundamentally wrong and do significant harm. The American Red Cross 12-pager lists a number of issues with the series and disputes the facts and reporting. And remember that asking for a correction may breath new life into a story you wish would go away (even if you ultimately get what you want). Tomorrow the news will be something else.

 Lesson #5: Realize everything you say is on the record and may be published. On the bright side, the American Red Cross did get their entire list of requested corrections published on the ProPublica website (I could not find the full list on the American Red Cross website). Some could argue this was an advantage, because now their objections are part of the overall story line and part of the original series website.

Lesson #6: Even if you feel like you are under attack, don’t strike back. Ask nicely even if it pains you. When other news outlets are saying you are feuding with two media outlets, you are not in a good situation. A news release issued by the American Red Cross in December 2014 goes to the level of attack saying, “ProPublica continues with its deeply flawed reporting and, as they have done repeatedly, based their latest reports on unsubstantiated second and third hand hearsay and rumor.” Any correction request should always be politely phrased and not stoop to the level of name calling. Responding when you are mad is always a bad idea.

Lesson #7: Don’t feed the flames. Start a fire break. If the reporting was so bad, I can’t help but wonder why the staff at the American Red Cross didn’t stop churning the water with these reporters at ProPublica and NPR, and go to a competing media outlet like the New York Times or 60 Minutes? They could have offered to open their books, share every file they have, and provide anyone this new outlet wants to talk with. To do so would have subjected themselves (and the series) to a big giant fact check and introduced transparency into the discussion. This might not be a viable strategy in another crisis scenario or with another organization (few situations might rise to the level of doing this), but in this case, it might have been an option worth considering.

Talk to Us: What do you think the American Red Cross could have done differently in this situation? What is your experience with requesting corrections from journalists? What advice do you have to offer?

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites. She blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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