Why Reactive Letters to the Editor Often Get Derailed

Among life’s certainties, negative news follows closely on the heels of death and taxes.  This certainty keeps communicators on their toes, as they strive to continuously mitigate the risks for their organization or at least hope to net out with a balance toward the positive.

But what about stinging, factually erroneous coverage that comes out of the blue? This is particularly disheartening for obscure organizations or sectors that rarely hit the news media radar. I’d suggest it’s also an opportune time for these types of organizations to “step into” an existing news cycle, with potentially a receptive platform to tell their story.

The caveat is not all scenarios warrant a response or are likely to create a beneficial result; so carefully assess your options. (Our IABC chapter faced such a decision a few years ago and decided not to respond. We noted the negativity centered on subjective opinions and we believed most readers would dismiss it because the writer was known for consistent bitterness.)

When a response is the best action, a seasoned tactic is a Letter to the Editor.  I’ve seen and written such responses that made it to print with positive outcomes. Essentially, you need to straddle three hurdles to keep the letter on track:

1. Keep it positive & objective – What I’ve found works is to position it as providing helpful and factual information to augment the offending article (i.e., delicately sprinkle the commentary with sugar). Even if the writer is blatantly wrong or overtly malicious (sometimes due to a hidden agenda), it’s probably not safe to publicly tell them so.

2. Keep it short – A Google search reveals recommended word counts for a letter to the editor range from 150 to 300 words, with the average about 200 – 250 words.

3. Keep it prompt – Strike while the interest is there by sending the letter as soon as possible, ideally within two days of the article’s appearance or less.

To communicators, this is rote knowledge but best practices run amuck when the CEO/President/Executive Director weighs in. Although most leaders accept their association with each message their organization issues, it can hit hard when their name is clearly printed out. And here’s how their response often plays out against these best practices…

1. Positive? – “We must correct them.” – It’s hard for a leader not to be ignited when their organization is unfairly beaten up. They may react by peppering your copy with emotions and possibly direct accusations.

2. Short? – “We need to explain things to them so they get it right this time.” – And so the flood gates open with exhaustive detail as they attempt to edit your copy to cover every angle.  Given their passion for the topic, they might find it tough to imagine the letter being rejected due to length. You can gently suggest it may survive but the paper’s editor may cut it down by amputating key sections to leave diluted messages or fragments with skewed meanings, possibly pulled out of context. (Of course, the mere mention of this possibility may re-start issue one, with a few more heated phrases.)

3. Timely? – “I need to run it by the executive just to be sure…” – This means navigating tight schedules to cycle the letter (and edits) through several hands. By the time the letter is perfect, the story may be history (or these days, the paper may have closed).

Alternatively, the leader may get cold feet after looking at the edited letter (which is now long and maybe slightly explosive) — and simply cancel it. I’m not sure how many of these letters are abandoned midway but I’d suggest the number is high.

Surely writing one of these letters challenges the greatest rapport and trust between an executive and their chief communicator or agency. But without a response, the fallout may unfold with the initial inaccuracies fueling more rumors, more negative coverage and a damaged reputation, leading to sales declines, market price drops, disenchanted employees…. With so much at stake, what can we do to keep these letters on track and with them, an organization’s reputation?  I welcome comments and ideas ….