frank addante

What do you do when a reporter you admire misrepresents you?

February 4th, 2008   |   by fbadmin

After announcing our $21M in funding last week, a number of reporters reached out to us for stories they were writing about the economy. We were featured in the L.A. Times, and the article did a fantastic job capturing the essence of what we do, and our culture. On the flip side, I was quoted in the N.Y. Times this past weekend in a story on the front-page of the business section that drastically misrepresented the thoughts I had shared.

Photo from L.A. Times article “Seeing ‘mad cash’ in online advertising”

During the interview, I felt that the reporter was trying to “lead” me down a path to better “fit” into his story. I felt that he was trying to get me to say that we raised the $21 million out of fear that there was going to be a recession. I strongly disagreed, noting that the funding had closed before talk of a recession became all the rage (while we announced it last week, the funding actually closed mid-December). Further, I stressed that we raised the money because we were chasing the huge influx of demand from the 3,000+ websites that signed up for our service.

But, in between the time of the interview and the story being printed, Microsoft made a bid for Yahoo! The reporter not only had to alter his original story (and focus), but he had to combine it with a story his colleague was writing about the Yahoo/Microsoft news. Unfortunately, in doing so, my comments were positioned out of context and false information was listed as fact. I can’t rightly say he “misquoted” me because I did make the exact statements I was quoted on, they are just out of context and positioned as supporting an argument I don’t actually agree with. Clever editing, some might say.

One example: he wrote that L90, one of my prior companies, filed for bankruptcy protection. Not true, never happened. In fact, he even emailed us on that point to do some fact-checking and we corrected him. He said he didn’t receive the email (We are implementing StrongMail to make sure our emails get delivered. I wish we had setup StrongMail sooner! StrongMail is one of my other companies, see Startup 5.0.)

The reporter is one that I have great respect for. So, I suspect that this happened because the story had shifted last minute.

So, what do you do when a reporter you admire misrepresents you? (and you don’t have a blog, like this one, that 6,000+ people read?)

Well, you need to treat your relationship with reporters just like any other relationship. Be honest. If you feel like you were misrepresented, you (or your PR team) need to call them and tell them just that. Reporters need news to do their job; you need exposure. It’s a give and take relationship. So, there needs to be trust both ways. You need to trust that the reporter will accurately represent your position.

A good friend of mine, Peter Sealey (former Chief Marketing Officer of Coca-Cola, President of Columbia Pictures and professor at Stanford and Berkeley), gave me the following advice: “Before the interview starts, you state that your comments are on background only and not for attribution unless and until you approve the specific quotes. You will lose a few interviews but the ones that go out will be accurate.” Peter is recognized as being one of the greatest marketers of all time and is an expert that reporters very often turn to for their articles.

Pete’s advice is sound. However, startups are generally not in the position to place demands on reporters. Most startups are hungry to get press attention. But, you do have to be careful. In general, the pros outweigh the cons, but always make sure you’re working with a reporter that you trust and try to build a long-term relationship with them. There is nothing wrong with asking a reporter up front what angle he’s really going for, or stopping in the middle of an interview to clarify. This way you don’t end up feeling tricked and the reporter knows you want to give him what they need and that you’re paying attention.

Bottom line: My advice is to be very careful with what you say. Be as clear as possible and treat your relationship with a reporter as you would any other business relationship. Work hard to understand exactly what they are trying to make the story say and above all, follow your instincts. If you sense that what you’re saying is falling on deaf ears, speak up, ask questions and clarify what it is the reporter is after.

So, was it worth it? The answer is yes. Having exposure in the N.Y. Times, even though it wasn’t perfect, resulted in a lot of great attention for us and a lot more sign-ups for our service, adding to the 3,000+ websites that have signed up already.