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Said the wrong thing to the media? When should you come clean?

By Tim Prizeman, Director - Kelso Consulting (Public Relations agency)

Today's reporting on the ongoing and unpleasant Carl Beech saga (the made up fantasies about a Westminster paedophile ring) revolves around the police statement at a now infamous press conference that Beech and his lies were "credible and true".

The problem for the police is that we now know what he said was not true and he was not very credible either.  The key question is at what point did the police realise he was not very credible either and why did they say his allegations were true... and why were they slow to correct this.

The key revelation today is that, apparently, the "credible and true" phrase was not part of the script, and allegedly went too far from what the police had agreed beforehand. Details in The Times.

It is important because, until this police press conference, most of the media were being very careful with the story (but not all - read this article for denial and finger-pointing by those that first reported on Beech back in 2014).

However, once the police said Beech was "credible and true" journalists somewhat justifiably felt "well if the police say this, they must know something and be pretty sure"... after which the story became a sensation, to the further detriment to Beech's victims.

The question for this blog, and which has lessons for businesses faced with the same dilemma, is "if we've said something inaccurate to the media, should we correct it? If so, how should we assess this decision".

It is an issue I have advised on numerous times, admittedly not in such a high profile case. Either way, the same psychology muddies decision-making... the desire to stop short-term pain (loss of credibility) at the expense of long-term risk (a revelation of a cover-up is invariably more damaging than the original problem).

It is easy to say with hindsight that it is obvious that the Met should have quickly corrected the error.

But this ignores the reality that there is an asymmetry. The short-term pain of a retraction would fall particularly on those involved (ie the Met officers) immediately. 

There is no doubt those involved would internally and externally look less than competent.  It could harm their career and they could have to step down from involvement in the investigation.  Such a retraction, especially if handled clumsily, would undoubtedly harm the investigation too.

Particularly in a political, risk-averse and blame-passing culture they will, not surprisingly, not want to show an error nor expose their career to a potentially painful end.

For the long-term, it may catch up with them or it may not. Either way they have allowed their career and the investigation to continue unhindered in the meantime. By contrast, the biggest long-term loser is for the Met, whose core proposition needs to be "you can always believe the police"... yeah, right! (Sadly).

The key lesson from this, and also my experiences, is that the decision whether to go back to the media to correct inaccurate information needs to be taken away from those personally involved. If someone is going to look bad internally or externally from a correction, they should not make the decision as clearly self-interest clouds judgments.

Yes, get their views. Yes, get proper PR advice and prepare for a negative reaction.  However, my experience is that I've helped businesses issue factual corrections, journalists have appreciated the candour and never regarded it negatively, nor reported it ... even when one well known accountancy firm got its tax calculations wrong in a prominent press release.

For businesses, there may be plenty of times when a blanket correction is not appropriate (especially where the error is inconsequential or, bluntly, where no one cared about the original announcement... small corrections are what blogs are for).   

However, coming clean quickly on factual mistakes shows integrity... delays and covering-up demonstrates the opposite. 

Sadly, sometimes doing the right thing has risks and pains involved.  There is no doubt that no matter how cleverly the Met had tried to retract the "credible and true" statement, it would have left them shame-faced. 

Putting aside the moral consequences of that decision by the Met not to retract that part of their statement (innocent people named and their lives needlessly devastated), my suspicion is that all involved already now wish they'd taken the tough decision to do the right thing at the time.

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Topics: Public Relations, Crisis, PR Disaster, PR, Interview techniques

Tim Prizeman, Director - Kelso Consulting (Public Relations agency)

Written by Tim Prizeman, Director - Kelso Consulting (Public Relations agency)

Director of Public Relations agency Kelso Consulting. We specialise in working with B2B tech companies, management consultants, financial and professional firms to help them build business-winning reputations. We do this through award-winning PR skills and a proven approach to creating high-impact thought leadership campaigns. I am the author of The Thought Leadership Manual: