A suggested guide for quote approvals
In one of my first posts for Talking Biz 2, I wrote about the process of quote approvals and its prevalence in business journalism. The esteemed New York Times columnist David Carr took up the story on Monday. He writes about his own experience:
I’ve had my own encounters. Within the past year, I’ve had a communications executive at a media company ask me to run quotations by him after an interview with the chief executive. I’ve had analysts, who are in the business of giving their opinion, ask me to e-mail the portion of the conversation that I intended to print. And not long ago, a spokesman, someone paid to talk, refused to put his name to a statement. Most of the time I push back, but if it’s something I feel I absolutely need, I start negotiating.
Which bring up the question, how do you make that call and when do you start to negotiate? Do you even have the ability and leverage to push back?
Obviously the answers to these questions depend on the situation, your relationship with the source, the story, your experience and tons of other variables.
But here are a few suggestions:
- If someone is paid to give information to the media, it’s always OK to negotiate. Many reporters, especially those new to beats, must rely on media relations officers for information. And just because a conversation starts out on background, doesn’t mean you can’t ask for that information to be on the record. Just be sure to take the time to clarify and be up-front, and honor your word.
- People in positions of giving their opinions or analysis such as analysts, economists and academics should not need to review quotes. They’re used to dealing with the media and should be sophisticated enough to speak for attribution.
- Weigh the importance of this person to the story. Is having a quote from former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis on his resignation worth running it past his PR rep before printing it? How much authority and relevance does the source have related to the coverage? Sometimes those with the most power and influence have the most to lose, making their position on approvals less flexible.
- Is the information, detail, or anecdote critical? If so, you’re at the mercy of the source and that leaves you little room to push back.
- Is this person someone you’ll need to work with for years to come? Sometimes you will have to put the long-term relationship in front of the immediate quote.
None of this is black and white. I know from my own time as a business journalist that sometimes your editor is demanding a quote 10 minutes ago from one particular type of person, leaving you at the mercy of the approval process if you want to make the boss happy. It’s a tough balance.
But just having the debate and getting people to think about pushing back is a start. I know a lot of seasoned reporters who rarely allow quote approvals. And they still have colorful quotes from important people in their pieces.
And here’s another point to consider: most reporters who interview people on the street or eye witnesses to an event get the spelling of their name, age, and information, but don’t check the quotes or clean up grammar. Sometimes local news has the most colorful personalities, quotes and interesting details, much of which would likely be edited out by a press officer.
By allowing executives, analysts and others closely related to business screen their words, we’re adding to the myth that these people are better than the average citizen. And it’s one more way they get to play by another set of rules.