On Responding to a Single Critical News Story

Thom Weidlich 04.18.19


Sometimes a crisis is a single critical piece appearing about your company or organization in a major (or not) news outlet. Think The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal. BuzzFeed. The question will then arise as to whether to issue a statement in response to this piece and, if so, how? We have seen some examples of such statements recently, and notice some similarities and differences.

In deciding whether and how to respond to such a story, a number of issues pop up:

  • Should you answer with a general statement or go into detail — maybe even point by point? Usually, a general statement is more for general coverage than a one-off story. We’re talking here about an investigative piece or one at least deeply researched, more so than spot news. You need to respond to specific allegations, but how specific? Bullet points do seem to be a feature of these statements.
  • Should you wait until the story appears or issue the statement ahead of time? You will probably know details and the tenor of the piece from your pre-publication interactions with the journalists.
  • Should you respond only to major investigative pieces, or do you respond to each minor sally?

Some examples:

On Feb. 19, McKinsey & Co. responded to an investigative piece in The New York Timesthat tried to show it has a conflict in that its little-known internal investment vehicle invests in companies that are also clients of the world-famous consultancy.

McKinsey’s lengthy response was both general and specific, with pointed language. The story was “fundamentally misleading” and the accusation was “wrong,” it said. “Unable to find any actual evidence, The Times instead strings together innuendo-laden terms like ‘web of relationships’ and ‘deep ties’ to imply the existence of a conflict where none exists,” it wrote.

The company was also able to cite a report put out the day before by the Financial Oversight & Management Board of Puerto Rico finding that McKinsey keeps the two entities separate. It’s good to invoke those third-party endorsements.

Different Statements

On Dec. 14 and 15, Johnson & Johnson felt obliged to respond individually to investigative stories in Reuters and The New York Times, respectively, about accusations of asbestos being in its talc. Interestingly, the two statements were different.

Like McKinsey, J&J used tough language, calling the Reuters piece “one-sided, false, and inflammatory.” Defending its product as safe, it cited the cumulative record from tests and in fact mostly relied on what it called extensive safety testing over decades.

Conversely, J&J’s reply to the Times piece was more prosy. Unlike the Reutersresponse, it mentioned the company turned over to the Timesa lot of information about testing, but said the Times ignored it. The response to the Times also focused a lot on testing.

As Apple has repeatedly explained to Bloomberg reporters and editors over the past 12 months, there is no truth to these claims.

— Apple Inc.

On Oct. 4, Apple responded to a story in Bloomberg Businessweek that said the company had “found ‘malicious chips’ in servers on its network in 2015.”

Like J&J with the Times,Apple invoked its interactions with Businessweek during the reporting process: “As Apple has repeatedly explained to Bloomberg reporters and editors over the past 12 months, there is no truth to these claims.”

Security Approach

Apple said it repeatedly checked out any rumor of a security incident Bloomberg brought to its attention, and couldn’t confirm any. It went into some detail on its security approach, and surmised that Bloomberg was confusing this alleged incident with an earlier one.

The company’s public statement was the same as one it sent to Bloomberg before the story appeared, Apple said.

We’ve mentioned in previous posts other incidents of companies responding to a single report. For example, we noted that in February 2018, the Dallas Mavericks adroitly responded to a Sports Illustrated story exposing alleged sexual harassment in the team’s management office. It was able to get that one out before the story appeared.

Responding to a single article can be a delicate task. Of course, you could always just write a letter to the editor.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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