Wick Communications

Winning hearts and minds

In Management on 8 Nov 2012 at 2:07 pm

This is the photo that set off the coach

Who among us hasn’t come into the office, fired up the old email machine and seen this sort of thing before even pouring a cup of coffee:

I was very disappointed in your article of the end of our (fill in the blank) season. First, the picture was one of complete dejection. That picture couldn’t have been less descriptive of that game and the season. What were you thinking? Second, why didn’t you play up the point of us being league champs?

Just a really lousy way for you to send off the 5 awesome seniors who defied all and became the league champs in 2012…

That’s an actual email that was sent to one of our sports’ departments. If you are a newspaper reporter or editor, I am sure you have one or two or 10 just like it in your inbox. So what do you do about these things?

I recommend a four-step process.

  1. Take a deep breath. Walk around the building. Wait. Then wait some more. Don’t craft any kind of response if you are angry.
  2. Look at it from the letter writer’s perspective. In this case, it was a first-year coach who loves his student-athletes and lives this stuff for several months a year. He isn’t a regular complainer. He’s just a guy who cares. From his perspective, he wants every photo of the kids to be flattering.
  3. Craft a note back, with an emphasis on craft. Begin it by thanking him for reading and taking the time to write. Then tell him why you did what you did. I find one effective strategy is to remind the writer that you cover the team (or the council or the FFA group) regularly and that this is just one photo or story from a long history of positive coverage. Invite him to call or offer to come see him.
  4. Swallow your pride.

Here’s the response I crafted with the help of the author of the original story: …

Good morning, (Insert name here). Thank you for taking the time to write me after your terrific season. I really appreciate your reading our reports and constructive criticism is always helpful.

I am sorry you are disappointed with the story. The picture was shot near the end of the game and I think it tells the story of the final moments of the season. I don’t think it shows complete dejection. We all know that there is only one champ. For the vast majority of high school athletes, the season ends in similar fashion. Losing and winning are part of the experience and therefore part of our coverage.

As you know, we cover as many of your matches as possible. More often than not, we catch your athletes in moments of victory and at times when their athleticism really shines. Obviously, we’re not in the business of making teenagers feel badly about their performance.

Again, thanks for all your help this season. I’m always available to talk about these things, as is my editor.

Feel free to quibble with the language, but try to grasp the idea. When confronted by an irate reader you want to address the complaint in a timely manner and win him back by telling the truth in a way that makes you both feel good. Save the snarky replies for your friends. And know this: It may not work. This guy is liable to fire off another angry response. If he does, I’ll let it go. Sometimes that is all they want.


  1. Being a sport writer now for 90 days, I have had a couple of letters back that I responded to in this fashion. It seemed the right way to do it. Each time, I have received a response back complimenting the story. The writers also offered to help gather information in the future.
    The important thing is to respond back, show a little empathy but also explain your choices. My personal belief is that, if you write it and put it in print, you should own it as well. If you can’t justify your story, you should not have written it.
    Dealing with high school and younger kids in sports stories should be done with care and grace. Nintey-nine percent of them will never play professional, let alone collegiate sports. Don’t for get the supporting team members and the little guy who may not have great talent, but has desire and courage to keep trying. These are the stories I am always looking for.
    Also remember, parents are looking for scrap book material. They want to see their kids names and pictures in the paper. If your focus is always on the Star players you can upset your readers. In our small paper, we cover four schools with two others on the fringe. Make sure you are equitable in the coverage, it will go a long way in community relations and it will be noticed and appreciated.

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