The practice of requiring journalists to submit on-the-record quotes for approval by a source in advance of publication has long been a sore point between the media and the PR profession. A new spotlight has been cast on the issue, with writer Michael Lewis’ acknowledgment that he’d agreed to quote approval for his Vanity Fair profile on Barack Obama, and the new policy issued by the New York Times, which forbids their reporters from agreeing to “after-the-fact quote approval by sources and their press aides.”
Notwithstanding the New York Times’ effort to protect the integrity of the Fourth Estate, there are at least 3 reasons why it makes good sense for companies and organizations to stand firm on stipulating that reporters obtain quote approval as a pre-condition for granting an interview:
- Reporters Are Human. They often don’t bring the depth of knowledge that’s required to cover the assignments they’re handed…so they will make mistakes. They also bring their own points of view…so they will be selective in how they quote sources. And sometimes, they don’t always play by the rules. This blogger was told by a New York Times reporter that if I pressed for a correction to an error he had made regarding one of my clients, that he would never feature any of my clients in his column.
- The Spoken Word and Written Word are Very Different. A comment or offhand remark that’s expressed during an interview can cast a false or unfair impression when taken out of context, and when it is read rather than heard. Very few individuals have the ability to envision…as they are speaking…how their spoken words will look in print and to know what message those words will convey. Mark Twain recognized that “talk in print” results in “confusion to the reader, not instruction.”
- Journalism Is a Cat and Mouse Game. Reporters are frequently looking for a “gotcha” quote that can juice up their coverage, or support a point they’re seeking to make. Their questions can be contrived, or their approach designed to wear down a source. This blogger learned that lesson the hard way, when a Chicago Tribune reporter twisted a fact-based comment in a very long conversation that enabled him to write a story entitled, “Amex Official Admits CBOE Superiority.”
If you’re willing to participate in media interviews without the safety net of quote approval….here are some guidelines that will lower your risk of being burned:
- You Can Never Be “Media Trained” – Regardless of whatever training, practice sessions or actual interviews you’ve had, believing that you are “media trained” provides a dangerous and false sense of security. Every reporter is different, every interview is a unique opportunity, and you need to be properly prepared every time.
- Don’t Lead Lambs to Slaughter – For a host of reasons, and regardless of their org chart position or years of experience, some people are media disasters. If your senior manager or client has a track record of interviews that did not go well, avoid putting them in harm’s way. If a heart-to-heart conversation regarding their poor interviewing skills is not an option, at least ensure that they are equipped for interviews with tightly scripted talking points.
- Tape Record all Interviews – When there’s a recorded version of an interview, a reporter is likely to be more careful in quoting a source, and you have something more credible than written notes, if there is any controversy. It’s good form to let the reporter know upfront that you will be tape recording an interview. If the reporter objects, and you still agree to conduct the interview, then your organization deserves whatever misquotes or misrepresentation may occur.