An article published this week by The New York Times highlighted the need for fact checking. The story centered on a small Colorado town that was duped into rallying behind a boy who ultimately died of cancer. Unfortunately for all of the well-wishers, the boy never existed.
While it is no small feat to sucker an entire town it is quite another thing to pull the wool over the eyes of the local media. Yes, I know, put all of your jokes about small town news aside for now. I may get offended since that is where I got my start.
The amazing accomplishment, allegedly masterminded by a 22-year-old high school football fan (read the article), is that the only interviews were given by a “family friend” who relayed information from Alex (the dying boy), whose photo was actually that of a real patient pulled from the website of a cancer foundation.
This got me thinking about the importance of fact checking. In my career I exhaustively fact check everything. Some say I go too far however I never want egg on my face or on the brand I represent.
So whether you’re vetting a new partner, prepping annual numbers for internal and external reports, or pulling together bullet points for your CEOs next speech, be sure that you fact check. Here are a few pointers in case you need some convincing to spend extra time reviewing the numbers:
As the editor of more than a few annual reports, I was charged with collecting data from law enforcement officers, medical records, 990 tax forms, financial assistance programs, staff growth, and so forth. Not only did I need to get these numbers right for the report but I also knew that each department would base their collateral for the upcoming year on my findings. Due to the importance of these “foundation” numbers I questioned each piece of data as I pulled it, compared them against previous years for abnormal growth or shrinkage, reviewed material in detail with senior management and program managers, and spent endless hours speaking with my CFOs.
As a spokesperson you need solid numbers. If a statistic is made public prematurely and the press discovers a discrepancy then it’s your job on the line. You never want to need to explain your inability to figure percentages to millions of nightly news viewers.
If you are a decent PR executive then you are not responding to the news as much as you are creating it. A love of numbers, patterns, and statistics is needed. The results can mean that you drive the trends rather than taking the backseat to your competition. However, you can lose all credibility if you have one percentage point wrong or fail to question the source of each report.
Grants (for nonprofits)
Nonprofits thrive on grant funding. The grant writers are the real breadwinners for many organizations and they rely on accurate information to demonstrate the effectiveness of a mission and to justify future funding. Many times they will reach for that annual report to grab a few quick figures and those numbers had better be right.
Word of mouth is key in this social media driven market. You need to supply your supporters with the most recent and accurate information available. Once it is public it will be shared and believed. If you put out questionable data you run the risk of alienating your base and creating an unwanted crisis for your organization.
This probably should not be last on the list since accuracy is crucial to building a trusted brand. A mistake made in one keystroke can undo years of trust building. Double, triple, and quadruple check all information before making it public. Have a review process to ensure accuracy and don’t be afraid to question any information that comes across your desk…it’s your job.
Has your organization ever had to explain away a fact checking mistake?