Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Media interview smarts: Why you can't check your quotes like the campaigns do

When I do a media training, it's not unusual for the trainee to ask at some point why he can't review reporters' work before it's published.  The most control-minded trainees just tell me that they're going to do all interviews off the record and demand a final review up front. They'd all love to know how to put the toothpaste back into the tube, too. But the whole premise behind don't get caught involves thinking through what you want to say ahead of time, rather than after it's out there. There's a fishbowl and you're in it, I say.

So I winced when I saw yesterday's New York Times article Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back, about the presidential campaigns' demand that reporters give them the final word on what's quoted when campaign officials are offered for comment. I can just see weeks and months of emboldened would-be spokespeople saying, "But the campaigns do it! Why can't I?"

Don't get me wrong. I've done my time both as a journalist and at senior levels of government and have conducted many an interview off the record, on background or on deep background--on both sides of the transaction. But I won't be training you to do that, nor will I be recommending ways for you to pre-edit journalists's work. Here's why:
  1. Are you running for president? I didn't think so. Whenever you make a bargain with a reporter that puts limits on what the reporter may do, from embargoes to off-the-record, it needs to be a mutally beneficial bargain--that is, you need to have something that the reporters want or need, and they get to decide whether that's the case and agree to it, or not, in advance. See the First Amendment to the Constitution for details.Your view of it as special, newsworthy or just something you don't want linked with your name is not sufficient to strike the deal. In this case, reporters want inside thoughts from those closest to the campaign strategy and they're apparently willing to submit to this review. If your name is not Barack Obama or Mitt Romney right now, this does not apply to you. 
  2. This takes work in advance: You'll be sorely disappointed if you assume that reporters will abide by bargains they didn't actually negotiate with you, one at a time, in advance. Starting an interview with an assumption that you can put things off-the-record as you go along is too risky, and just forget about  adding in "of course, what I just said is off the record." Once it's out of your mouth, it's on the record. 
  3. Off-the-record and quote approval are no guarantee that you won't wind up being covered for what you're not saying, as the Times article demonstrates. Put enough restrictions on reporters, and they'll cover the restrictions, lifting the veil you supposed you draped over that conversation and making sure your tactics are exposed for all to see. This goes into the more-trouble-than-it's-worth file for most of you.
  4. Don't use it if you don't understand it. One reading of All the President's Men does not a Deep Throat make. In fact, if you read that classic with care, you'll note that even Woodward and Bernstein and their famous source managed to get the rules screwed up now and again, resulting in bad assumptions and coverage that was just wrong. Even if you think you understand off-the-record, the odds are good that the reporter you're working with has a different set of assumptions than you do--and you may not know how to ascertain them until it's too late. I once worked with a CEO who liked to say "this is just off the cuff" because he couldn't remember "off the record." Guess what? Reporters who inquired (and many did) were told with a sigh that those comments were fair game because, well, they were. 
  5. There are better and more direct ways to suss out what the reporter is taking away from the interview.  Among my 12 questions you get to ask reporters are many that will help you get a better sense of what the story (and your quotes) will be doing, and they're all questions you should ask before or during the interview, not after you see it in print. The best one for this purpose: Asking "What are you taking away from this?" at the end of the interview. That's your best chance to suggest nuance and revision, if absolutely needed, not later. 
  6. More often than not, you've been quoted correctly.  I can't count high enough to number the times I've been asked, "Denise, don't you find that, 99.9 percent of the time, the reporter has misquoted the expert being interviewed?" No, that's not what I find at all. What I find is that you said something you weren't supposed to say, you were quoted accurately, and now you want to blame the reporter. (See reporter Warren Leary's story here about the source who said "I never said that" but meant "I never meant to say that.") If that's true for you, now you need practice in saying what you want to say in a way that you won't regret in the morning. 
  7. If you're that risk-averse, you shouldn't be talking to reporters. Yes, talking to reporters does carry risks, from what your colleagues will think to how your image is affected. If you can't stand the heat, just stay out of the kitchen...or stand by what you really said, which is easier. NYU's Jay Rosen correctly noted yesterday that the campaigns' turn toward demanding quote approval was a sign of just that: 
This is  addressed to the sources, but I want to know from my regular readers: Do your experts and spokesfolk want do-overs on quotes and interviews, communicators? And reporters (yes, they read this blog, too), is this a widespread problem on your beat? Share your experiences, and shed some light on this practice, in the comments.

I do media training for individuals and groups, and it's full of no-nonsense and reality-based advice just like this. If you can't say this to your CEO, president or experts, I'd be happy to do so. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz if you or your spokespeople need such a training.

UPDATE: Poynter has more on this issue from the journalists' viewpoint, including results of an informal Twitter poll to learn whether journos will oblige requests to "rinse" quotes. Short answer: Still no. Big-ego experts are always on the agenda at Be an Expert on Working with Experts, my workshop for communicators and related professionals who work with subject-matter experts, policy analysts, scientists and engineers. Registration is now open for the next workshop on August 23 in Washington, DC, or I can bring it to your workplace. Get an early registration discount if you sign up by August 3.


Raj Mukhopadhyay said...

Great post, Denise! I'm going to post it to my FB page for scientists in my network to read.

John Fleck said...

Denise - The reaction in my newsroom was one of genuine surprise. We never play by the sort of rules that the Times story describes. Quote editing/approval by sources is just not done here in the part of flyover land I live in.

John Fleck said...

Denise - The reaction in my newsroom was one of genuine surprise. We never play by the sort of rules that the Times story describes. Quote editing/approval by sources is just not done here in the part of flyover land I live in.

Denise Graveline said...

John, thanks for sharing that--by no means do I want to suggest that this is commonplace, just a new wrinkle for a very tiny part of the source-journalist exchange. In fact, I've heard from many reporters in the past day who don't let sources do this, and had the same fears I did that sources would somehow think they could ask for such a privilege. Hope I didn't seem to imply otherwise!