Crisis Management: Revisiting Rolling Stone’s Failures

It’s been three years since Rolling Stone published its infamous and defamatory report about rape allegations at the University of Virginia, but it’s important to revisit the most piercing analysis of what the magazine did wrong. Rolling Stone’s investigation: ‘a failure that was avoidable,’ a report co-authored by the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, is still worth reading because it has crisis communications lessons for every potential target of investigative journalism. Indeed, it’s a tool you can now use with reporters, should you need it.

In the report’s words, Rolling Stone’s “failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.” The report concluded that “three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort.” Two of those failures stand out because those of us who deal with media investigations know these failures are more common than they should be.

The magazine’s first main failure was a violation of essential fairness. As the report notes, “if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story.” For the article, Rolling Stone didn’t seek comment from individuals whom it reported as making several self-damning statements.

You might ask why this matters if you’re the subject of an investigation. After all, if you know you’re under investigation, presumably the reporter has contacted you already. This, of course, is not always the case. Though uncommon, it sometimes happens that you learn from somebody else that a reporter is investigating you. If this happens, you should contact the reporter immediately and find out what he or she is working on.

More importantly, embedded in the statement that a reporter “should seek that person’s side of the story” is the assumption that reporters must give subjects time to give their sides. As you know, however, too often reporters call after they’ve written most of their stories and simply ask for comment. Thus, if you get one of these late-inning calls, don’t let it slide. Insist on your right to have time to put your facts together and share them with the reporter. If the reporter resists, go to the editor and, if necessary, higher up. As the report explains, you have this right under basic journalistic tenets. Assert it.

Rolling Stone’s second basic failure was its refusal to share with the fraternity where an assault reportedly occurred sufficient details for the fraternity to respond to the allegations. Once the article appeared, the fraternity was able to research key aspects of the allegations and demonstrate their inaccuracy. That, however, was too late for the fraternity.

The crisis communications take-away here is one that the fraternity should have followed when Rolling Stone first called. Notably, the report provides no indication whatsoever that the fraternity insisted on getting the details necessary for it to address the allegations. Apparently, the local chapter and national headquarters simply responded to the general allegations rather than demanding details.

To be sure, the blame here lies with Rolling Stone, not with the fraternity. The magazine had the obligation to be fair. But, you should learn from the fraternity’s apparent crisis communications mistake. If a reporter calls you and asks you to respond to vague allegations, you have the right under basic journalistic tenets to get the details. As with the first right, insist on this one – all the way up the chain of command if necessary.

In its reporting zeal, Rolling Stone hurt many people, and we all have the opportunity to learn from what happened. For those confronting crisis communications, the report on Rolling Stone’s failures is a clarion call to know your rights and insist on them.