PR Folks—What’s Wrong With This New York Times Article About You?

The essence of journalism is stained every time a reporter either willingly or unwillingly provides a source with his or her quote for an article before publication.  This deal is sometimes made conditionally before the interview takes place, or as an informal request post-interview that carries a lot of weight and inference of future access to that source.  And if you agree with New York Times media columnist David Carr, quotation-approval leads straight to the PR person and it is because of PR’s involvement in interviews that this whole mess over quotation approvals has reached a fever pitch.

To wit, Carr quotes Reuters business columnist Felix Salmon as saying: “Requests for quote approval rise in direct proportion to the involvement of P.R. people.”  In the Sept. 17 Media Equation column titled “The Puppetry of Quotation Approval,” Carr points to Michael Lewis conceding that in his Vanity Fair piece on President Obama he was forced to get approval on all quotes used in the article; and Elizabeth Warren agreeing to a piece in Bloomberg Businessweek provided she could approve her quotes before publication.

Carr notes that “a great quotation, the kind that P.R. folks love to rub out, in my experience, can make an article sing or the truth resonate.”

I agree with Carr that a great quotation – even better, an article filled with meaningful quotes – provide the anchor to the story. Quotes add the color, lighting and shadows a journalist needs to paint an accurate picture.

However, I do take issue with Carr’s underlying commentary in his column that PR is hindering the interviewing process. What’s wrong with this – for the PR profession as a whole – is that Carr perceives PR to be this way, whether it’s true or not. Surely, there are PR representatives who interfere in the process. And just the same, there are PR reps who help pave the way to a great interview and then get out of the way.  Sometimes PR is in the room or on the call, but most times PR is not shadowing the interviewee.  The fact that a very influential media columnist is putting it out there  – that “PR folks love to rub out” quotes – is a problem for the profession.  Surely there is a better way for both journalists and PR professionals.

Sound-bite journalism has contributed to a source’s skepticism that the reporter will keep the story in context.  At the same time, as Carr points out, more journalists are pushing back and refusing to hand over quotes pre-publication.  Further, a poorly reported article with inaccurate statements can cost a business dearly on the bottom line.  So there’s still work to be done on the newsroom side.

But PR should work harder every day to strengthen its role as a Counselor within his or her organization, while improving its role with journalists so that trust is unquestionable.  There should always be a mutual understanding among a journalist and source that, in an interview, two people with very different jobs (and end goals) are just talking to one another and what’s spoken by the source is true and what is published by the media is accurate.  If a source feels that his or her quote needs to be “reworked” or scrapped from the article before publication, then the problem started long before the interview. Better that PR serves as a trusted and educated counselor to her execs and spokespeople to avoid Interview Insecurity and bad press for Public Relations.

What do you think?

Diane Schwartz

Talk to me on Twitter too: @dianeschwartz

  • Albe Zakes

    I have to strongly disagree with Mr. Carr’s assumption that PR reps are driving the quote approval process. I would guess that in most situations the PR reps are forced to play “bad-cop”, because their client/exec/expert wants to have pre-approval and we are left to deal with the journo.

    Often, journalists will request fact checking on an article, a request which PR reps are happy to oblige. But to think quotes play by a different set of rules seems unreasonable to me.

  • Chris O’Neil, CDR USCG

    First, I think anyone looking to clear a quote from POTUS has to expect to deal with a few layers of review, including the White House Office of Communication. To think otherwise is naive. So this particular example isn’t really a fair representation of the general interactions of PR professionals and journalists.

    Of course a request for clearing a quote will get routed to a PR person, it is after all, our job to provide information to the media.

    That said, clearing a quote should be a yes/no process, not a creative one.

    I agree with the premise that if a quote needs to be “reworked” there is something inherently wrong with the process and the level of mutual respect & trust among those involved. When I provide an interview, I try to ensure clarity at the source. If I see the reporter isn’t recording the conversation, or if I think a point was missed, I’ll clarify my point there and then. I train/advise my principals the same way, a chance to review is an exception, not a rule, so prepare for that reality and work to ensure a mutually agreed upon meaning is reached in the interview.

    “The views expressed here are my own and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

  • Emily LeBlanc

    I would hope to counsel the interviewee beforehand to ensure a great quote will be offered. However, the role of PR is to ensure that a good quote IS delivered so of course pre-approval of quotes will sometimes be necessary.

    I agree with the notion that we have to sometimes play “bad cop” and make these requests to journalists on behalf of the interviewee/organization.

  • Nesima

    When I was a journalism student, I would have never understood why interviewees would ask to have their quotes pre-approved. At most, I had people I interviewed for stories actually ask me to “make them sound good.”

    Now on the PR side, it makes sense for PR practitioners to coach their clients about how to approach the media and how to conduct themselves. It’s not about lying or spinning the truth for journalists, but to make sure that the right message and point comes across. Journalists do not own objectivity and fairness; PR practitioners strive for the truth and ethical principles as well, so it’s important that this idea is shared at a mainstream level. We are trying to represent our organizations as best as we can and facilitate an easy, efficient relationship between the media and our client.

    Naturally, there will be certain types of individuals like the President who want to keep a certain image in the press, so they will ask to approve quotes, but ultimately the journalist still gets to write the story as they wish. There has to be a balance between both sides’ objectives in pursuing a story without degrading or insulting the integrity of the public relations field.

  • Public relations India

    A story with relevant and meaningful quotes does add credibility to it. PR just ensures that the interview goes on smoothly. Their sole task is to represent their clients in a dignified way. When a source feels the need to “rework” or “restructure” his quote, then there is a great chance of something being fishy out there. PR people should form a trusted and reliable relation with the journalists.