Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The re-use blues: Recycling press releases, speeches, slides

My wonderful former boss and mentor, the late Thomas P. Gore II, grandson of a U.S. senator and raised in Washington, DC, used to recount insider tales of the halls of Congress, where he served as a page back in the day. Gore was the guy who talked me out of journalism and into communications by urging me to do media relations "as you would have wished someone to do it when you were a journalist," still good advice today. But his insider stories were a way of teaching me the ropes, usually with a lot of humor thrown in. And one of the best stories was a cautionary tale about why you shouldn't re-use one communications vehicle--in this case, a press release--to play the role of another, such as a speech.

Here's the tale: A to-remain-nameless Member of Congress leaves Washington for an event in his home district, announcing that he's succeeded in bringing new funding to his constituents for some purpose. There's a live event and a big crowd. Instead of having the speechwriter craft special remarks, someone said, "Wing it from the press release." So he took the press release on stage to read from, and bellowed into the microphone:


And then he proceeded to read the entire text of the press release as written: The dateline. The third-person references to himself. The facts and figures. When he got to the parts where he was quoted, he read the quote, followed by, "said Representative Nameless." At the end, he even read the "-30-" that indicated, back in the day, that the final sentence has appeared. The delivery was spirited and enthusiastic, in the style of his normal stump speeches. There's no word on whether the crowd caught on, although I am sure it felt odd to be on the receiving end of this recitation.

The real message to me was that you can't count on your speaker to wing it from materials not designed for the task at hand, nor should you. And if you're the speaker, don't think you can do this.

Sometimes, many times, you get away with it, as Congressman Nameless did (although I am still telling that story). But sometimes you don't. Rep. David Scott of Georgia got caught re-using a banking lobbyist's previous testimony, From the Huffington Post story:
At a House Financial Services Committee hearing last week on new rules intended to rein in abusive forms of payday lending, Scott couldn't seem to stop praising the industry, using language that sounded, well, bizarre. He bemoaned over-regulation by two agencies that don't actually oversee payday lenders. He said such "small-dollar" loans were "highly transparent" with "built-in controls to limit the use" -- products so good, they're designed to prevent people from using them. 
And then Scott gave away the game. 
"They've all received positive feedback from our borrowers," Scott said. 
As a member of Congress, David Scott doesn't have any borrowers. But Richard Hunt, the top lobbyist for the Consumer Bankers Association, represents plenty of companies that do. Scott, it turns out, was basically reading from 2013 testimony that Hunt gave to the Senate without disclosing his source.
A Congressman lifting phrases and passages from a lobbyist's testimony isn't just a bad look. Testimony before Congress is a legal proceeding, and generally, a matter of public record. The assumption is that your testimony is your testimony.

The alternative is plagiarism. Many would shrink from that term, yet just that kind of creative re-use of public statements happens daily, or becomes tempting, for all kinds of public and private sector executives. You could "just" read the speech from the press release. You could "just" reuse Fred's slides, because they're so much better, or your own slides created for a different audience, because they are already done. You could "just" reuse Janet's speech, because hers said what you wanted to say and so much better, and besides, the message deserves to be repeated. That's how the thinking goes. And then you wind up with "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE!" or "This is a slide we often use to explain this issue, and let's move on..." or plagiarizing a lobbyist. It's a slippery slope.

Sometimes, this comes down to bad staffing. This testimony borrowed parts, not all, of the text. Someone had to manipulate that, and didn't catch that the Congressman doesn't have borrowers when they wove the lobbyist's words into his testimony. And that's the trouble with borrowing from or re-using a speech written for someone else. It's nearly impossible to get into the head of the other speaker, who would emphasize certain things or include or exclude certain things for reasons that have nothing to do with your message. That's true whether you are the speech preparer, or the speaker.

I often tell the speakers I coach that the words need to "fit you like a glove," and I mean it. So in the preparation process, I make suggestions and edits, but urge them to adjust to fit themselves. In the end, reading from someone else's speech, slides, or heaven help us, press release isn't going to have the impact you think it will. Making your own statement is the only thing that can have true impact.

(Creative Commons licensed photo from GotCredit)

No comments: