Oops: How to Recover From a Mistake

19 November 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

When you've gotten something wrong, "sorry" doesn't cut it. (Image: Cieleke/stock.xchng)

Assuming you are a human, you are going to make mistakes. But if you’re a reporter, blogger or PIO, those mistakes can be public. And embarrassing. So how do you recover gracefully, or at least with as little damage as possible to your reputation?

Here’s the short answer: admit your mistake as early as possible; never make excuses; and do not make the same mistake again.

The problem with excuses

When someone makes a mistake, their first reaction is often to explain why it wasn’t really his/her fault. One problem with explanations like this is that they sound like excuses, and nobody wants to hear excuses. Another problem is that, for the most part, no one cares about your explanation. No one cares that your source misspoke when you interviewed him or that the copy editor accidentally deleted an important qualifier. What they really want is for you to get the story right. So cut to the chase and run a correction.

I was recently at a meeting with a bunch of reporters who were interested in a forthcoming study. I confidently told them that the paper was coming out in three days, offered them whatever material they needed and left the room feeling pleased with myself. I was spreading the word about some cool science!

Then I realized the paper was actually coming out in 10 days. Oops. I immediately contacted all of the reporters and told them the actual publication date. I didn’t waste their time explaining why I’d gotten the date wrong; I just gave them the information they needed as quickly as possible. They thanked me for the heads up. No big deal. But they would likely have been a lot less forgiving if I hadn’t told them immediately – and they’d done their reporting thinking they could roll the story in three days.

Salvaging credibility

If you don’t own up to a mistake, you risk losing your credibility. And whether you’re a reporter or a PIO, your credibility is your most valuable commodity.

This is how editors respond when you make the same mistake more than once. (Photo: ross666/stock.xchng)

In October, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School) issued a news release about a paper being published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linking the artificial sweetener aspartame to cancer. There was even a catchy headline for the release: “The truth isn’t sweet when it comes to artificial sweeteners.” But … oops. The release hadn’t gotten approval from relevant “scientific leaders” – and those leaders decided the data in the paper weren’t sufficient to support the news release that had been issued.

The hospital immediately put out a statement saying it shouldn’t have issued the release and apologizing to any reporters who might have spent time working on a story as a result of the release. (Note: I’m not just talking about “churnalism” here. Imagine being a reporter who’d spent hours calling respected cancer researchers to get input on the new study, only to find out it was a waste of time.)

In an interview with the Embargo Watch blog, the hospital’s senior vice president of communication and public affairs said that coming clean about a flawed news release is “better than having people out there read our material, and make decisions based on it, if we can’t stand behind it.”

That is certainly true. But it’s also true that the hospital needed to publicly admit it had made a mistake in order to preserve some credibility. Good reporters view any news release with a healthy dose of skepticism, but if an institution gets a reputation for overhyping its research accomplishments, that healthy dose of skepticism will turn into distrust or contempt – and that means reporters won’t even bother hearing what the institution has to say.

By demonstrating a willingness to admit the mistake, the hospital was able to minimize the damage caused by the misleading release.

Fool me twice

Honest mistakes happen. But if the same mistake happens more than once, you’re in trouble.

When I was a reporter, if I caught a mistake in something a source told me, I’d let it pass. I’d tell the source about the mistake, as a courtesy, and assume the error was an honest one. If it happened twice, I assumed the source was a liar — or, at the very least, that the source was unreliable — and that card got dropped from the rolodex (yes, I used a rolodex). I won’t even tell you how my editors responded to reporters who made the same mistakes repeatedly. Suffice it to say I was very grateful I was not one of those reporters.

So don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake. Save that energy for how you’ll respond to it.


2 Responses to “Oops: How to Recover From a Mistake”

  1. David Wescott Reply | Permalink

    Sometimes the best advice is the least followed. But then, if it were followed I'd be out of a job ;)

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Ha! Very true. This is why we see the same scandal dynamics play out time and again on the political stage and elsewhere.

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