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?
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