In the course of human events, you will screw up. You’ll mess up a name, misspell the restaurant you’re profiling, get the score wrong. It happens. Trust me. You’ll write a correction and move on. It’s generally all you can do.
Occasionally, the mistakes are more important than a misspelling. Sometimes, they really irk someone in the story. You likely know how those days go, too. The city manager calls, screaming that you got the budget figures wrong. The nice lady in your office is mad because you indicated her living husband has died. The local businessman calls your boss because you said — incorrectly — that his beloved eatery closed.
It’s usually a good idea to try to explain the mistake, cop to being human, and promise a correction. It may be a good idea to make the change online (along with an italicized note saying you’ve done so.) The quicker you can admit to your mistake and take corrective action, the better for all involved, yourself included.
But what do you do if a lawyer calls?
That’s when it’s time to shut up. Not because you are trying to hide anything or pretend the mistake didn’t happen, but simply to protect yourself and your organization. The lawyer likely isn’t calling to discuss the mistake in general terms. The mere fact that a lawyer has been consulted should be an indication to you that the stakes have risen beyond the apology stage.
At this point, be unfailingly polite, but you don’t have to be overly generous. An attorney may probe for information he can use against you in court. If you tell him on the phone that you never liked that rat-infested restaurant he represents, you can expect that to come up when the court tries to determine whether actual malice played a role in your mistake. Thank the attorney for his call, ask for a call-back number, refer him to your publisher. If pressed for specific information on the matter at hand, tell him that all you have to say about the story is embodied in the story itself. …
Do not volunteer to send him notes or anything you haven’t already published. (Please read that sentence again.) Try to get off the phone as efficiently as possible.
The things you say to an aggrieved party can also be used against you in a libel case. Be careful with everything you say. But take special care once a lawyer calls.