Media Misfires: What to Do When the Story Misses the Mark

Mike O'Connell

One of the most difficult aspects of PR is figuring out how to respond to a negative story.

Unfortunately, not every media opportunity turns out the way we hope it will. Sometimes a writer makes a legitimate mistake. He might misquote a client, misinterpret something the client said, or incorrectly describe the company’s business offerings. It’s not pleasant. But it happens. Writers are human.

Writers also have opinions – and sometimes those opinions might be negative toward your client. If the writer feels strongly enough about a subject, and has a platform that allows him the leeway to criticize as he sees fit, he might deliver a good ol’-fashioned attack piece. He lines up a series of facts – or at least a series of other opinions – that support his conclusion, and he lets loose.

How do you respond to an attack like this? Or to an article with a casual mistake?

There are some practices PR people should and shouldn’t follow. But every situation is different, and PR responses will depend on what’s been said, what our relationship is with the writer, what publication the story ran in, and how our client prefers to respond to negative press.

As you consider how you’d react to certain kinds of situations, it’s worth taking a look at a recent case involving Walmart and an acid-tongued New York Times columnist.

The Times’ op-ed column that raised Walmart’s hackles carried the following headline: “The Corporate Daddy: Walmart, Starbucks, and the Fight Against Inequality.” Contributing writer Timothy Egan argued that Starbucks is “trying to be dutiful” while Walmart “is a net drain on taxpayers, forcing employees into public assistance with its poverty-wage structure.”

Walmart’s PR leaders, not surprisingly, weren’t happy with the way their company was portrayed. So they decided to do something about it.

They didn’t pick up the phone and yell at Egan. They didn’t write a scathing “Letter to the Editor.” And they didn’t take to Twitter with concise, nasty missives (#MadAsHell, #DownWithTheNYT, etc.)

Instead, VP of Communications David Tovar posted a copy of the Times column on Walmart’s blog and marked it up with red-pen edits that he felt the editors should have made in the first place. “Tim -- Thanks for sharing your first draft,” Tovar’s hand-scrawled note reads. “Below are a few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn’t get published.”

Tovar circled and underlined passages, and wrote little notes “correcting” them.

Egan referred to Walmart as a “net drain on taxpayers” – forcing “employees into public assistance with its poverty-wage structure.” Editor Tovar retorted with the following: “We are the largest tax payer in America. Can we see your math?”

Egan stated that Walmart reaped $17 million in profits in 2013, that its highest paid executive earned more than $20 million, and that the six Walton heirs are worth $150 billion. Tovar’s note in the margin: “Possible addition: Largest corporate foundation in America. Gives more than $1 billion in cash and in kind donations each year.”

Egan cited an opinion poll that found 28 percent of consumers surveyed have an unfavorable view of Walmart. “Pretty sure any corporation, politician even media outlet would like to have a 72% favorability rating,” Tovar responded.

It goes on from there.

Walmart made some good points. It argued the points coherently. But was it a good PR tactic?

Some press reports thought so. The Daily Caller, a conservative website, ran this headline: “Wal-Mart’s Response to The New York Times Hit Piece is EPIC.” Forbes contributor Tim Worstall celebrated “WalMart’s Delightful Smackdown of The New York Times.” Business2Community contributor Arik Hanson called the gambit “nothing short of brilliant.”

Others disagreed. Salon headlined its piece “Wal-Mart flunks its fact-check: The truth behind its sarcastic response to the Times.” Writer Ari Rabin-Havt likened Walmart to a “petulant child, unhappy with a negative report card.”

Clearly, the piece itself struck a nerve. The story generated 395 comments before the Times capped responses. Many of the comments took shots at Walmart, but others praised the company for striking back at the media.

The move was daring. Getting into a public battle with a media organization certainly can backfire. Most PR people would tend to take a more careful approach – maybe reaching out to the writer or an editor to plead for corrections or lobby for a more even-handed piece next time. Perhaps they might respond with a few comments at the end of the story, or place a byline in a competing publication supporting their cause.

But you do have to give Walmart points for creativity. The editor/professor tone Walmart took was edgy and skillful – pointing out “mistakes” in a reasoned, sometimes humorous, manner.

Communications is changing. Negative stories won’t go away completely, and it’ll be interesting to see what other kinds of creative responses will surface. How would you handle something like this?

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