Brands

Do You Regret Something That You Published? Here’s How to Respond

By Herbert Lui November 4th, 2014

In the fast-moving media cycle, media companies and brands inevitably either don’t produce enough content to connect with their audience, or publish stories that they’re not proud of. No one is perfect. And no one seems to have a solution. Deleting articles from the Internet that don’t fit new standards—or are the source of controversy—is possible, but it’s not always a good idea. (You’ll see why in a minute.)

As highlighted in a report produced by The Toronto Star, Matt Williamson of Mississippi’s Enterprise-Journal said: “The whole notion of unpublishing online stories is so new that there is no universal practice in place.” So what exactly is wrong with simply unpublishing an article?

Transparency is vital

In August, it came to light that BuzzFeed had deleted over 4,000 articles from their site, a lot of them from before 2012. What really drew the recent negative press was that they didn’t announce that they would be unpublishing work. Rather, they did it in secrecy, and were caught red-handed.

According to BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, early BuzzFeed writers were told to go back and delete any of their articles that didn’t meet BuzzFeed’s new editorial standards. Smith soon came to regret how the entire process turned out.

“I don’t suggest that this was masterpiece of a really well-thought-through process,” Smith told Poynter. “In retrospect [what] we should have done is we should have had a pop-up on that page when you hit that URL [of a removed article]. It’s stuff made at a time when people were really not thinking of themselves as doing journalism; they saw themselves as working in a lab.”

Reminiscent of TechCrunch’s experiments with iterative journalism, Smith claimed that BuzzFeed was going through a “growing up” phase. But with the evidence now struck from the Internet, who knows what BuzzFeed was trying to hide? “We didn’t fully think through as we should have what the reaction would be,” Smith said. “We should have thought a bit more about how this would be perceived.”

You risk losing your audience’s trust by simply clicking delete on what you don’t want people to see; ultimately, there’s a better solution—updating.

Don’t delete, update

Unpublishing should never be the first step when it comes to dealing with misinformation. Rather, publishers should make subsequent updates, strikethroughs, and modifications within the piece in the hopes of reaching an understanding between the publisher and the public.

At the Chicago Tribunestandards editor Margaret Holt reports, “Like many others we are gathering string on this topic, but seem to be headed toward a standard practice, with room for growth as we learn more. Our starting point is that we don’t unpublish but we are open to considering new information and adding that online.”

When dealing with a publication mistake or content crisis, brands can consider one of these three options that are typically used to help protect online privacy:

  • Implement a sunsetting or le droit à l’oubli (“the right to be forgotten”) system. Publishers use the automated system of sunsetting to retire articles about arrests after a certain preset period (i.e., an expiration date). If your brand has an article or series that you really would prefer never to reach your audience, implement a sunsetting system to retire them. This option is close to unpublishing.
  • Use a robots.txt file to prevent the article from being crawled by search engine spiders. Although the content will stay on your brand’s site, it will be significantly less visible.
  • If there’s a minor mistake, publish an edit at the bottom of an article updating or correcting the unwanted information. Readers may have to scroll down to see the change, which ruins the effect. To counteract this, post an [UPDATED] tag in the headline, or display a pre-page modal announcing that the original article has been updated for accuracy.

Reestablish your reputation

If a bad piece of work ever filters through your editorial workflow, it’s crucial that you come back with quality pieces. Bury the needle in a haystack. Sometimes you have no choice: If you’re a content manager or brand manager coming into a situation where a brand has recently suffered some lapses in content judgement, you may need to take less risks with your content and hold yourself to an extremely high standard of quality. If you already had an outstanding reputation prior to the mishap, you’ll be able to bounce back much more quickly.

One solution is to stockpile articles that you know will resonate with your audience. For most readers, safe topics generally include productivity, famous people (e.g., interviews with business leaders, celebrities), and findings from recent studies published in an academic journal.

Acknowledgement and apology

Social media has made it easier to connect, reprimand, and—naturally—apologize. You may be able to placate your audience by admitting your error right away.

As Chris Book writes for Convince & Convert, your customers may equate the speed of your responsiveness with how much you value customer feedback. He writes, “With each passing second, a wall is building up between you and your customer base that has expressed a certain level of dissatisfaction.”

Of course, depending on the degree of the error, after a certain point you just need to let the media cycle take its course and not fan the flames.

Closing thoughts

The Internet is filled with junk, which makes it even more imperative that brands are diligent in making sure that what they publish is factual and relevant so it isn’t just adding to the mess online. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said in an industry event for magazine executives that the Internet is becoming a “cesspool” where false information thrives. “Brands are the solution, not the problem,” he added. “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”

That said, a time will come when you find that the work you published in the past is subpar. That’s okay. Update them, revise them, or announce to your readers you’re ushering in a sunset system. Remember, trust is difficult to earn and easy to break.

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