When does a media apology do more damage to reputation than restore it.

One of the most widely read and consumed stories in any media is the ‘correction’. They draw attention in the way only schadenfreude and imagined ferocious conflict can. Even small ‘apology’ stories are well known to get a lot of attention.

A recent example involved the SMH / Age coverage of former Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke’s very public infidelity bust up video and its subsequent coverage of ‘celebrity accountant’ Anthony Bell who was present when the notorious video was created.

While for obvious legal reasons I won’t go into the story in detail, a very prominent retraction and ‘apology’ appeared within days of the story running. It could not be missed.

The apology, which was reportedly written by Bell’s lawyers, was epic in its lawyerliness, but was still compelling because …. well …. schadenfreude and conflict.

If the object of Bell’s legal team was to make some money, gain some vengeance and get even more publicity, then job done. This was multiplied when the story was apparently ‘leaked’ (including the settlement amount) to tabloid media The Daily Mail.

However, from a reputational perspective, it probably reinforced all the points made in the original article. Anyone who missed it would have been keen to find out what it claimed and despite the ‘apology’ would have associated the accusation with Bell, even more than before the correction appeared.

So how do you make a media correction work for you reputationally when the media admits an error?

1.      Keep your ego in check

Reputational damage often involves embarrassment and hurt. The desire to lash out at the source is understandable. However, focusing on a definite outcome – whether that is legal compensation, or repairing reputational damage – will always end better than a simple desire for revenge against the journalist.

2.      Don’t leave it exclusively to the lawyers

Lawyers are not PR experts and while they must be involved in the drafting of any correction or apology, a lawyer written apology can lack subtlety in addressing reputation and can make it worse.

3.      Keep it brief and don’t repeat negatives.

If the original article is gone and removed from the web, make sure the apology doesn’t repeat damaging errors made in the first place.

4.      Consider alternatives

In some ways the correction or apology is a throwback to a different era when articles appeared mostly in print and largely disappeared with the next edition. Today, the apology is there to be Googled long after the story that created it has faded from memory. In some circumstances an apology that corrects the record makes sense, but not always.

The best way to repair reputation that has been unfairly damaged is to prove it with deeds and news. While getting an incorrect, damaging article removed from the web is important, a correction, or apology can end up doubling down on the damage done

So what’s your experience? Is the news media apology something that should have disappeared in the digital age, or have you found it useful?

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