The importance of minding your ‘p’s, ‘q’s and commas

This appeared in HRZone and it’s a useful reminder about the devil being in the detail…..

Posted by Peter Cook on Wed, 13/06/2012 – 10:01

HR often finds itself at the edge of the business and the outside world. As such it is responsible for the external image that the business portrays. I want to share a story that happened last week, which has important lessons for all those who have to deal with the media as part of their HR role.

I had sent a press release out for an HR Leadership event coming up on June 19 in partnership with The Open University. 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 last Thursday, who 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 will indeed be joined by Bernie Torme. Fact.

· Tormé was indeed guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne. Fact.

· Tormé was also guitarist for Ian Gillan. Fact.

· Ian Gillan will 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 comma. By Friday morning, BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme ran a story that more or less suggested I was responsible for reforming Black Sabbath and Deep Purple – An awe inspiring thought but sadly untrue! By Saturday 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 seminar. Despite copious efforts to correct the story online, BBC 6 music repeated the mistake on Radcliffe and Maconie on Monday. At the time of writing, the story has reached USA Today, The Times of India and possibly The Sun. Graphic evidence of what has been said recently in the Leveson Enquiry that “checking your facts = I read it in another paper”.

You might say that all publicity is good publicity? 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 be able 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 HR people 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 for good reasons, but it helps to avoid this kind of PR disaster.

2. Act quickly to correct errors. I was able to stop the Sunday Express print run by contacting the paper at midnight on Saturday night, but the ‘runaway online media train’ had already ‘left the station’ re all the other 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. All the small things count.