Advance Approval of Interview Quotes: a Self-Destructive Media Policy


We’ve all been there: despite training and practice, the CEO blows a good media coverage opportunity by saying the wrong thing to a reporter, and neglects to say what should have been said to communicate the company’s key messages. We all want to see the best possible media portrayal of our companies, or clients’ companies, and there are times we’d love to rewind the interview to answer differently.

We’re finding out that within the political realm, this is indeed possible. It came out this summer that the staffs of both Presidential candidates have refused to grant media interviews with the candidates, their wives and their key aides unless the media outlet would agree to submitting the quotes used from the interview to the campaign staff for approval. Big influential media outlets like the New York Times have been acceding to this demand.

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This practice clearly undermines the quality of the reporting by allowing the campaign staff to sanitize remarks made in interviews by changing quotes to make them more vague and less likely to offend anyone. Never mind that the quote reflected what the person actually said. The purpose of checking the quotes goes way beyond simple fact-checking; it’s aimed at damage control.

Quote approval gives the candidates the power to use the media to shape public perception.  The media play an important role in a democracy as independent third-party voices reporting the facts as objectively as possible. Allowing the candidates to control the reporting to the extent that they can take back what they said weakens the veracity of the reporting.

The cat is out of the bag. Some major media outlets readily admitted that reporters have been allowing quote checking (and alteration) by campaign staffers as a condition for obtaining an interview. Readers who are paying attention and now realize this is happening are bound to have less trust in the media.

This morning I attended a meeting where Bob DeFillippo, Chief Communications Officer at Prudential Financial, spoke about the ways social media has played a role in blurring the lines among earned media (i.e., what is reported by independent news organizations), paid media (i.e., advertising, and paid editorial coverage, often called “advertorial,” which is not earned media but advertising) and owned media (i.e., content that companies create and disseminate themselves, which is neither earned nor paid media). He pointed out that the definitions of the three are becoming more blurred every day, and commented that we need to respect the definitions, not contribute to changing them, because earned media plays such a significant role in building corporate credibility.

He concluded that it’s in the interest of PR people to safeguard the integrity of earned media in order to protect the powerful contribution it can make towards reputation-building. I totally agree with him.

There are many reasons for the blurring of the lines among paid, earned and owned media, not just the proliferation of social media. For example, “pay for play” media coverage – where a publication insists that an organization be an advertiser in order to receive any editorial coverage – is more and more common these days, unfortunately, due to the desperate financial straits many media companies find themselves in. My firm advises clients to stay far away from “pay for play” media situations.

It’s the responsibility of public relations professionals to prepare clients well for media interviews. Sometimes despite our best efforts to do this, clients aren’t portrayed the way we would like them to be in an interview. The solution is not to insist on the right to see and change their quotes. It is certainly not better to rely on “pay for play” media. We just need to see to it that clients get as many media opportunities as possible so that one media mishap doesn’t play a major role in defining the client’s reputation.

Lucy Siegel

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2 Responses to “Advance Approval of Interview Quotes: a Self-Destructive Media Policy”

  1. Diane Mensinger Says:

    Lucy:

    Truthfully, I really like the idea of someone calling me to check on quotes, for amplification of remarks and for understanding by the journalist(s), This has happened with national, regional and local media outlets as well as with industry publications.

    So often, when working for Fortune 100 companies and making public presentations, or testimony to legislative bodies, my remarks have been mis-quoted and made-up by journalists from reputable media organizations. Sometimes I believe it was deliberate as it didn’t fit a preconceived notion of what I should be saying. In fact, I was severely criticized my the CEO of one company until he was mis-quoted by the same reporter with our communications director sitting in and taking notes on the interview.

    Just my thoughts!

    • Bridge Global Strategies Says:

      Hi, Diane,
      My comments do not so much have to do with fact-checking as they do with trying to take back comments made in interviews, or temper them to make them more politically correct, less strident, etc. When someone calls you to check on quotes, then fine – that is the journalist’s way of making sure the content is CORRECT, which is great. The problem is when someone in a position of power refuses to give an interview unless (s)he or staff people will be able to see and change the quotes before publication. While this is almost surely done in the guise of fact-checking, it is NOT fact-checking when someone takes back something they said or “vagues it out” to be more appealing to his or her constituents.

      Lucy

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