Hassle Over Misquotes Carefully, Avoid Off-The-Record Totally

Even PR pros devoted to baseball, football, basketball and hockey must admit those major sports are benchwarmers compared with niche sports in the 2022 PR Lessons Learned Derby, so far.

The most recent example was the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. In actuality, the Winter Olympics is a mix of niche sports packaged as a 17-day TV commercial.

Even the best crisis communication minds couldn’t stem the continual flow of negative media coverage. Those stories began July 31, 2015, when the 128th International Olympic Committee (IOC) session, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, awarded the Games to China.

Targets of the negative news coverage included the IOC, NBCUniversal and some of the biggest U.S. companies—IOC sponsors Intel, Procter & Gamble, Airbnb, Visa and Coca-Cola. The companies also were criticized during congressional hearings examining allegations of genocide in China’s western region of Xinjiang. The companies basically said “No comment,” but used other words.

Three important PR lessons from the Beijing Olympics: 1) PR cannot stop the flow of negative articles 2) the prominence of an organization will not protect it from negative coverage and 3) as Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Off-The-Record and in the Bunker

Another recent PR lesson learned from a niche sport, golf, concerned off-the-record statements.

Before jumping the fence to PR, as a reporter I’d interrupt people duing interviews who said, this is off the record. I’d respond, “Anything you say to me is on the record. Don’t tell me anything you don’t want to see reported.” That was because agreeing to off-the-record conversations might hinder me from reporting on information I obtained later, from another source.

In addition, as a PR pro I never offered off-the-record information. This was so even for media contacts and friends I trusted completely. My reasoning was the same as noted above.

Eyes Wide Open

The PR lesson from golf concerned Phil Mickelson's comments about a new Saudi Arabia-financed Super Golf League (SGL). SGL intends to rival the PGA Tour, Mickelson's home for two decades and golf’s dominant circuit.

Golf writer Alan Shipnuck said Mickelson told him it was worth getting in bed with the Saudis, despite their history of human rights abuses. Doing so, Mickelson claimed, would help promote changes in the PGA Tour. More than that, Mickelson allegedly told Shipnuck the Saudi-backed tour “was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to boost PGA Tour players’ income. Mickelson believes the PGA has kept too much of some players' purses.

Mickelson, Shipnuck claims, approached the partnership with eyes wide open. Having certain Saudis running the golf league, he told Shipnuck, is "scary.” For some, Mickelson's key mistake was saying out loud to a reporter what others believe but wouldn't say. It's another example of sportswashing; using sports as detergent for cleaning questionable reputations.

Mickelson’s remarks received extensive major media coverage after they became public. The golfer said his comments were shared out of context and without his consent, according to a NYTimes story. In short, he accused Shipnuck of printing off-the-record comments.

He Said, He Said

Shipnuck said Mickelson’s claim that his remarks were off the record was “completely false.”

In a long, yet flawed apology, Mickelson called his comments "reckless" and said he was "deeply sorry for my choice of words.” But the damage was done.

It is not unusual for a corporate executive to be quoted correctly in an article and later regret speaking with its writer. Oft times, a client will claim I was misquoted or I thought it was off the record. The company then badgers a PR pro, seeking a correction.

Leave It Alone

If the quote is accurate, leave it alone. It will only cause bad feelings with the reporter and not result in a correction.

When a quote is incorrect, unless it has legal ramifications, leave it. Again, seeking a correction could damage your relationship with an otherwise friendly reporter.

Communicators who seek continuing education can get a lot of free PR lessons in daily newspapers. But even I was surprised at the number of takeaways available in so short a time from monitoring niche sports.

Arthur Solomon was SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. [email protected]