Dealing with complaints

The Reuters reputation for getting it right and reporting it fairly is something we should be proud of, professionally and ethically. It is also a key part of attracting and keeping clients. Sometimes, however, we do get it wrong, and it is important for our reputation to fix it when we do. Responding promptly and properly to complaints that we have not been accurate, balanced or ethical can also avoid what could become costly legal problems, or widespread bad publicity. We also now increasingly deal with the public at large.

There is no one-size-fits-all process for handling complaints, but it should help us come closer to consistency if we all start from the same general principles. These guidelines should be combined with your knowledge of the specific situation and especially with the application of common sense every step of the way. In most cases that mix should be enough to keep molehills from becoming mountains, and to keep the genuine mountains from becoming impossible to conquer.

As an underlying principle, remember throughout the process of dealing with complaints that attitude counts. Getting mad or sounding overtly hostile may only make the person raising an issue more determined to press forward and less inclined to listen to what we have to say. It may help if you try to think of what you’re hearing as feedback or constructive criticism, rather than simply a complaint.

First responses

If the issue is raised via telephone, the journalist picking up the call should record the essence of the matter and the particulars of the caller – name, title, company or group, and telephone number. Retain that information even if the problem seems to have been resolved in the course of the call. The caller could have second thoughts. Likewise save letters or e-mails related to complaints even if the matter appears settled. The bureau chief or top editorial manager of an operation should retain a central file of these records.

If you think you can deal with the complaint immediately yourself, do. For example, if a caller is saying you spelled her name wrong in a story you wrote, and you did, tell her it will be corrected, do the correction, and move on. If it’s equally non-controversial but involves another journalist, put that person on the line to handle the caller. Remember that sometimes a reader or viewer just wants to offer his or her two cents of opinion, and is not expecting more than “thank you for your input” or some assurance their point of view will be taken into consideration next time around.

Some complaints may be general ones or clearly unrelated to your patch or powers. If you are sitting in Singapore and a reader calls to say he thinks Reuters coverage of the Middle East tilts too far in favour of the Israelis or Palestinians, your ability to do anything directly yourself is minimal. In such cases point the reader to, where comments can be submitted and will be read by a senior editor.

Not all complaints are that simple, of course. They may involve subjective judgments about whether a story was one-sided, disputes about facts that will take some checking, or claims of libel or other legal issues. There may be requests to substantially change content or withdraw a story, or a complainant may come back a second time to say the action you had taken was not good enough and demand something further. Any of these justifies escalation. In such cases, politely inform the person who raised the issue that you need to discuss it with other staff and someone will be back in touch. Then follow through by advising a senior staffer (e.g., section chief, desk editor, EIC or bureau chief) of the details. And don’t forget that promise to get back to the complainant, even if only to advise that the matter is still under consideration if it appears it will take some time to decide on a course of action. In general, the medium of response should mirror the medium of the complaint (phone calls for phone calls, emails for emails, etc.). Centres that get many comments that do not necessarily require an individually tailored response may consider developing a form letter (e.g., *see the example at the end of this section of what goes to those who e-mail via

Further steps

The same principles of common sense apply if an issue has been passed on and up. A bureau chief, for example, may feel complaints of political bias are unjustified, politely tell unhappy members of a pressure group why, and that may be the end of that. Double-checking and exploration of additional references may clarify who is wrong and who is right on a factual issue and if it is us, a correction may be issued that puts the matter to rest. Again, the complaining party should be advised, generally by the same medium he or she used, of our decision. If the medium is the telephone, notes or a tape should be kept. Then again, we may feel charges of bias are unjustified, but they come from a government department which does not want to take no for an answer and makes noises about cutting off our reporters’ access if we do not put out a reworked story. A client company may couple a demand to withdraw an analysis they dislike with a threat to cancel all their contracts with Reuters if we do not. Anyone (whether an individual or a company) named in a story they think libelled them may be determined to sue whether there is a correction or not. Analyze the situation and consider who else in Reuters needs to be told about the problem, either because it could affect them or because they may be able to help you.

For example: In the case of the government department, senior editors should know that there could be an impact on our coverage access, and potentially other consequences that may have an impact on our operations and staff. They might also be in a position to do some lobbying (or bring in the Reuters professionals who do that) to bring the bureaucrats to their senses.

In the case of the client company, while keeping in mind the need for editorial independence to be maintained marketing and sales executives should be advised so they can prepare for the possible problem, and perhaps when they understand editorial’s reasoned views be able to use their own good contacts to get the company to reconsider.

In the case of any threat to sue, the Reuters in-house legal department should be contacted immediately for legal advice, and senior editorial managers made aware that there is an issue that could mean significant financial costs and possible negative publicity. For the latter reason our public relations people should also know, and may have useful advice. If unsure about consulting or escalating, lean on the side of doing so, and always consult promptly with counsel if there appears to be a serious threat of legal action. And in today’s world, no explicit or implicit threat of physical action from an unhappy individual or group should be taken lightly either.

Any of the hypothetical examples mentioned above (but not run-of-the-mill corrections) would qualify for inclusion in an editorial incident report. The company has a global internal process for the electronic logging of serious incidents, which the examples in this section would probably require. This is a task for managers, who should be familiar with the guidance in the section of this Handbook, DEALING WITH THREATS, DANGEROUS SITUATIONS AND INCIDENTS INVOLVING REUTERS OR ITS STAFF response:

Thank you for contacting Reuters. We value your feedback. Your comments have been passed to our editorial team for review. We receive many hundreds of e-mails each week and it is not possible to send individual replies. But we do welcome views on how we could improve our news coverage and all correspondence is read by a senior editor. In fact we often spot and correct errors faster with the help of sharp-eyed readers. Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact us.

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