Why paying attention to all the small things is critical when communicating with the media.


PAs often find themselves at the interface between the business and the outside world.  As such, they are responsible for the external image that the business portrays.  I want to share a story that happened recently, which has important lessons for all those who have to deal with the media as part of their role as Executive Secretaries.

I had sent a press release out for a leadership event we were running in partnership with The Open University and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply.  The press release included a sentence which said:

Monsters of Rock’n’Roll Business features Bernie Tormé, guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne and Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, alongside Peter Cook, business author, speaker and business consultant.

The story got picked up by The Independent newspaper in the UK.  The journalist rewrote the line to read as follows:

Cook will be joined by Bernie Tormé, former lead guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne, and Ian Gillan, the Deep Purple singer.

It’s still perfectly accurate, but do you see what has happened here?

  • I would indeed be joined by Bernie Tormé.  Fact.
  • Tormé was indeed guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne.  Fact.
  • Tormé was also guitarist for Ian Gillan.  Fact.
  • Ian Gillan was the singer of the legendary hard rock group Deep Purple.  Fact.
  • Ian Gillan would not be, and was never due to be, at the event.

The BBC’s editorial team picked up on the story but missed the all-important ambiguous comma.  By the following morning, BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme ran a story that more or less suggested I was responsible for reforming Black Sabbath and Deep Purple – an awe inspiring thought for some music fans, but sadly untrue!  By the following evening, The Sunday Express and New Musical Express had copied the mistake and amplified our event into a ‘tour’ through the strategic addition of the letter ‘s’ to the word seminar! Despite copious efforts to correct the story online, the mistake was repeated on BBC 6 Music, Classic Rock Radio, USA Today, The Times of India, The Belfast Telegraph, Gibson Guitars, numerous rock music blogs and many more places around the world.  This is graphic evidence of what has been said recently in the Leveson Enquiry: ‘Checking your facts = I read it in another paper.’

Some might say that all publicity is good publicity, but  in this case, I had to spend considerable time and energy correcting online media and apologising to Ian Gillan’s management.  Rock’n’Roll can be cruel, and I’m pleased to say that I still have all my body parts after this process!  I also had to spend quite a bit of time dealing with old rockers and rock chicks, who wrote e-mails to confer God-like status on me for forging a reunion between Ian Gillan and Bernie Tormé.   Having pulled this trick off, some of them even expected me to resurrect Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse!

The moral of the story may be summarised in another newspaper headline: Comma Causes Comms Chaos. What then, are the lessons for PAs who deal with PR and external affairs?

  1. If possible, get national media journalists to send a proof of anything they release.  Of course they don’t like doing this, but it helps to avoid this kind of PR disaster.
  2. Act fast to correct errors.  I stopped the Sunday Express print run by contacting the paper at midnight on Saturday, but the ‘runaway online media train’ had already ‘left the station’ with online copies of the article.
  3. Commas cost me a few apologies to some class A rock stars, but the consequences could be more serious for your business.  In the warped words of Blink 182: ‘All the small things count’.
Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock and Human Dynamics - innovation management consultancy, blending leading ideas from the world's business schools with the power of music. He has delivered keynotes and masterclasses to some of the world's top ... (Read More)

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