How to Pacify an Irate Source By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Whether it’s a phone call, email or letter, eventually negative feedback from interview sources comes to every published writer. It may feel satisfying to whip off a caustic reply reeking of sarcasm, but this type of response won’t improve the source’s attitude about you or your publisher. Here’s how you should respond to negative feedback to pacify irate sources, defend your work and present yourself and the publisher in the best light.

Take a breath. Maybe two. By delaying your response until you calm down, you help nullify the emotions of the situation. But don’t let an upset source stew too long or he’ll tell more people about your supposed gaffe.

It’s not likely that the source really thinks you’re a terrible person, but that he’s disappointed to find you overlooked a fact, misrepresented the topic, misquoted him or made a persuasive argument with which he disagrees.

Other times, the upset source doesn’t understand much about writing. I once interviewed a doctor who felt angry about two articles for which I interviewed her. She somehow expected a byline for my work, even though they were multi-sourced articles and not advertorials!

In an email, I told her I was sorry she did not like how the articles turned out, thanked her for letting me know, and then explained that no interviewees receive bylines for articles, only attribution of quotes, which the articles gave.

I further explained that the 200 words she spoke in the interview were pre-approved by her via email, quoted verbatim and not long enough to constitute the two multi-sourced, several hundred word articles I wrote. To toss her a bone of credulity, I asked if she had emailed further information I hadn’t received, even though I knew she hadn’t. I wrapped it up with more thanks and my contact information.

I didn’t promise any retraction or reprint since I was not in the wrong and, unless I’ve arranged something like this with the publisher, I have no power to promise anything.

Since I replied back to all those to whom she sent the email (including their organization’s PR manager, whom she implored to drop us as their advertiser), I quashed her attempt to sully my name. The public relations people and editor involved even complimented me on my thoughtful and measured response.

Perhaps you’ve uncovered something that someone doesn’t want printed and that’s why he’s upset. These situations make keeping your notes especially important. I once interviewed a representative of an organization who told me that her department was on the verge of bankruptcy–a great scoop integral to the article.

After it printed, her bosses sent my editor angry emails stating that the story was false, demanded a retraction, and added that the source should never have been interviewed. The source then called me and said she was going to be fired for speaking with me. This was serious business!

Perhaps she shouldn’t have talked with me, but I was right to quote her. The organization’s own website stated she was their contact person and she consented to the interview, fully realizing I planned to quote her and her information also matched what another source had told me. Because I kept the notes (including emails from her and dictation of a phone interview), the editor believed me, and dealt with the situation.

A source may be upset that you didn’t cover a particular aspect of a topic. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of word count and space making it impossible to give readers the A to Z on the subject. In these cases, I explain why I was not more thorough and assure them I’ll try to write another article including their aspect if possible. (Never make promises you can’t fulfill.)

If your only means of contact is returning a phone call, write a script of what you plan to say before calling back. Keep your facts handy, such as dates, contact names and titles and anything else that will prove your credibility. If you don’t know the answer to a question, jot it down and get back with the source.

If an irate source calls you out of the blue, it’s okay to say it’s not a good time and you would like to call back at a convenient time. Take down his contact information and, as with writing a reply, express thanks for their feedback.

Whenever speaking with or writing to an angry source, stay pleasant. As the Bible states, ìA soft answer turneth away wrathî (Proverbs 15:1). Try to see the source’s point of view. And, as I did in the first example above, thank the source for his interest. Without sources, where would we be?

Deborah Jeanne Sergeant writes from her home in Wolcott, N.Y. Visit her online at or .