Mishandled press release causes consternation
On Tuesday, Oct. 18, a press release arrived at the Heights Observer. It was sent from Hennes-Paynter Crisis Communications, a Cleveland Heights public relations firm representing First Interstate Properties.
The press release said that First Interstate—the company behind the controversial retail development planned for the South Euclid parcel of the former Oakwood Country Club—had completed its purchase of the Cleveland Heights portion of the property.
The release also provided background information and quotes about the developer’s plans for the property.
The release arrived minutes before the Observer’s weekly e-mail newsletter was scheduled to be distributed. An individual at the Observer made a spot decision to run the press release as the lead item in the newsletter. It ran essentially verbatim, under the name of Barbara Paynter, the public relations professional who had submitted it.
Because of the timing, more than 3,000 subscribers to the Observer newsletter had the information hours before anyone else. But a number of them were quick to point out that the article was one-sided, with no voice from anyone who opposes the development.
As a volunteer-run and mostly virtual entity, the Observer is vulnerable to manipulation. People we heard from believed the public relations firm and developer had pulled one over on us by submitting a lopsided article as news.
That’s simply not what happened. The press release was clearly marked and submitted in good faith, using standard practices in the news business. There was no duplicity.
In deciding to publish the information, the Observer should have taken either of two actions:
- Published it verbatim or abridged, with a prominent notice that it had come from the developer; or
- Used the information as the basis of a more balanced story that presented both sides of the issue.
We failed to do one and didn’t have time for the other. The error was ours, it has been discussed, and everyone involved has learned from the experience.
Within two hours of receiving the first complaint, we made some minor changes to the article to reflect the fact that its author was working on behalf of the developer. By the next morning, after fully understanding what had transpired, we made more significant changes to clarify that the information was from the text of a press release—a vehicle that is not obligated to present more than one side of an issue.
When volunteers get together to publish news, they run the risk of making mistakes like this. I think it’s important that we air them and learn from them.
On behalf of the Observer, I apologize to those who were confused by the way the information was presented, and to those who may have appeared anything less than professional during the time it took us to sort out this mistake.
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Rosenbaum, chairman of the Observer's editorial advisory committee and FutureHeights board member, writes this column to provide transparency and understanding about the Observer.
Rosenbaum, chairman of the Observer's editorial advisory committee and FutureHeights board member, writes this column to provide transparency and understanding about the newspaper.