How to deal with challenging media coverage

While it’s almost NEVER a good idea to challenge media coverage, there are times it may be necessary. Here are examples of the right and wrong ways to refute a story.

While it’s almost NEVER a good idea to challenge media coverage, there are times it may be necessary. Here are examples of the right and wrong ways to refute a story.

We live and die every day for coverage. For our clients. And when clients are dragged through the coals in the press, we get serious heart burn. It is never a good idea to challenge reportage, unless it is seriously off the mark. It invariably leads to he-said / she-said, and never ends well. Best to swallow the bitter pill and move on.

But the Amazon vs NYT incident detailed below shows an example in which refuting poorly researched reporting may be in the best interest of a company. (For the lesson on how NOT to challenge coverage, read the HPE vs FT story that follows it.)


Amazon versus The New York Times

A mighty war of words was exchanged between Amazon and The New York Times. If you didn’t follow it, here is a quick snapshot. The story is a must read for PR folks.

NYT famously published a bruising article (some would call it a hatchet piece) on Amazon in August 2015: Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace. Following a six-month research and interview period that included more than 100 people, authors Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld penned a 5,700-word article that tore into Amazon’s HR practices and the work culture. The article went viral and resulted in a big backlash against Amazon. Current and past employees inundated social media platforms with their take.

Usually, if an institution such as NYT publishes an article, the only response may be a sternly worded letter, a lot of angry email exchanges, and a proposed boycott of the publication. But given the many social media platforms available to it now, Amazon took its response up a notch.

Jay Carney (Global Corp Affairs lead), who has 20 years’ experience as a reporter for the Times and more recently as Press Secretary for the Obama administration, penned a lengthy rebuttal to NYT on Medium on Oct 16, 2015.

Dean Baquet, Editor in Chief of the Times, responded on Oct 19…again, on Medium: Dean Baquet Responds To Jay Carney’s Medium Post

Jay Carney then hit back at Dean in Jay Carney’s Response to Dean Baquet, and essentially tells off NYT. “New York Times chose not to fact-check or vet its most important on-the-record sources, despite working on the story for six months. I really don’t see a defensible explanation for that failure,” wrote Carney.

He went on to decimate Kantor’s article with such nuggets as “how much credibility should readers assign to all the anecdotes and quotes in the story from anonymous sources?”

It’s a fascinating read with a few things worth considering:

  • The PR game is changing. Companies don’t have to take it lying down if reporters do a shoddy job.
  • Self-publishing and social media platforms are a good way to counter unfair and negative reporting, but make sure you have your ducks in a row. Amazon put up a good defence and they make a lot of sense, especially if you read the dispassionate response penned by a current employee on LinkedIn without PR approval: Amazon staffer defends his company against New York Times
  • More importantly, Jeff Bezos did not respond — Jay Carney did. He comes with a lot of credibility given his journalistic background and experience as the White House Press Secretary. Would Amazon have hit back without Jay leading the charge?
  • Amazon has been hitting back since then with great pieces on the company. A great example is the Fortune cover feature with Bezos in January 2016 titled “Amazon invades India: How Jeff Bezos aims to conquer the next “trillion-dollar market.”


HPE vs Financial Times

First, read the below in sequence:


  • Lucy Kellaway, a veteran FT journalist, called out the in-her-words “empty” statements made at Davos, and highlighted at the World Economic Forum.
  • HPE’s marketing and comms head criticizes Kellaway’s article in a letter for saying Meg Whitman is bone-headed, and obliquely mentions ad spend. Note: One should never…never mention “ad spends” while questioning a journalist.
  • Kellaway stews over it…and makes the letter public in a new column. She calls the letter “aggressive” and rejects the notion that FT should consider its relationship with advertisers when considering editorial content.
  • HPE then sends a copy of the letter written by HPE’s marketing and comms head to PR Week to prove that he was respectful.
  • …but the battle is lost already

My take is that, minus the mention of “relationships with advertisers,” the letter was perhaps okay. It would have been much better to let the matter slide. The article made fun of many, many CEOs and world leaders so Whitman was certainly in “good” company.

In conclusion, HPE came off as whiny, and PR Week’s reach is certainly no match for that of FT.

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