PR crisis: Act fast when numbers go rogue

February 12, 2013

A corporate client in the process of a complex merger sends a frantic email. A top-tier media outlet’s website has posted an article that cites specific numbers related to the merger. Problem No. 1: The numbers are wrong. Problem No. 2: No such numbers have been made public. Problem No. 3: The merger partner, a public company, is highly irritated by the apparent disclosure and assumes someone has been talking to the press, while lawyers on all sides of the deal are concerned that an improper disclosure could represent a regulatory breach.

The challenge

To find the source of the information and get the numbers off the Internet, ASAP.

The approach

Web-based journalism these days is kind of like the old REO Speedwagon song — “I heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another…” Once facts hit the Internet, they often get picked up and re-reported without independent verification. The same thing happened back in the print days, of course, but with the more robust fact checking and editorial oversight in old-school newsrooms, there was a better chance the fact would be correct in the first place. If an error did get re-reported, the longer news cycle afforded time to contain the damage. Now, erroneous information can spread like wildfire.

The first step in our approach was to confer and speculate on the source of the information. The fact that the numbers were inaccurate made it unlikely that someone close to the deal was talking out of class. The most likely culprit was sloppy reporting. On an investor conference call the previous week, the client’s CEO had made a few thumbnail-sketch comments about ownership percentages and other breakdowns after the pending merger. A Wall Street blog site had repeated these comments, almost verbatim. It was possible that the reporter had started with these ballpark figures, then done thumbnail arithmetic using publicly available revenue information to come up with his numbers.

We immediately sent the reporter a message stating that his numbers were incorrect, and demanding that he either remove them from his story or cite his source. Within minutes the numbers had been stripped from the article. In a follow up e-mail the reporter sheepishly referenced the fact that other sites had published similar data. He even cited the very same Wall Street blog that had published information from the investor call.

The takeaway

When erroneous facts hit the media, parties involved are inclined to assume the worst, and suspect any number of malevolent motives. Oftentimes, however, more common human flaws are to blame—in this case, laziness. The simple fact is, the media world ain’t what it used to be. Reporters today have greater independence and reduced oversight, especially those who work exclusively online. In nearly two decades in journalism, I came across a lot of bad data, but in recent years noted a sharp uptick in the number of “facts” that crumbled when I tried to confirm them.

The most important factor in this case was swift action. Bad information can propagate fast online, causing irreparable damage. Quickly responding to any fact error is essential if the damage is to be contained. It is possible to get information off the internet, but it gets hard fast. Once information is repeated a few times, it becomes fact, true or not. Fast response requires open lines of communication between the client and PR firm, and the ability to quickly determine the best course of action. In this case, that speed saved the day.