Tips of the Trainer: Dealing with Reader Complaints

In the good old days when I was a news editor, Friday mornings were the highlight of my week. For that was when readers would ring in with complaints. And if they wanted a row, well, I made good and sure they got one.

I’m not so sure whether my rather aggressive approach would work so well these days. We live in an age of customer care, and try to treat readers politely and take their complaints seriously. No bad thing, since an unhappy reader can soon become an ex-reader.

And of course, when a complaint has the whiff of legal action to it, our response is crucial. If we are impolite or say the wrong thing, it can be costly, especially as readers are only too quick to rush to their solicitors and launch a compensation claim these days.

We need to know what to do if we receive a complaint that contains a threat of possible legal action:

1. We should not attempt to deal with a complaint without first referring to the editor or our next-in-command.

2. We should be polite and courteous. Rudeness or hostility can often harden a reader’s attitude and make them more determined to pursue the complaint.

3. We should listen carefully to the complaint and take a note of it.

4.We should NEVER admit any kind of liability, even if it seems that we are in the wrong.

5. We should promise nothing other than to refer the matter to the editor, who will write/call after (s)he has investigated the complaint.

6. We should NEVER inform the caller that newspapers are insured against libel and similar risks. This information can encourage them to pursue an action.

7. If the caller refers to legal action, we should mention the words “I am speaking without prejudice” during the conversation. This prevents them from using things we have said as evidence against us in court.

8. Once the caller has rung off, we should refer the matter to the editor, or the appropriate person straight away. Covering up one’s mistakes normally causes more problems later.

9. The wisest approach is to try to settle a complaint amicably without having to resort to solicitors and courts. It is quicker and cheaper in the long run.

Cleland Thom runs Journalism Training Services (www.ctjts.com) and can be contacted at cleland.thom@tesco.net

by Cleland Thom

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