An Open Letter to the PR Community to Help Restore the Credibility of Journalists

September 24, 2012

Dear PR Pro,

Admit it.

You probably did a fist pump after reading David Carr’s column last week, “The Puppetry Of Quotation Approval.”

According to Carr, journalists are increasingly acquiescing to PR requests to be manipulated, often in the form of approving quotes. In exchange for access, the journalist agrees to the run quotes by the organization for approval.

Carr summarizes the issue as thus:

It used to be that American businesses either told reporters to go away or told them what they wanted to know. Now, a reporter trying to interview a business source is confronted by a phalanx of factotums, preconditions and sometimes a requirement that quotations be approved. What pops out of that process isn’t exactly news and isn’t exactly a news release, but contains elements of both.

Don’t allow Mr. Carr’s taste for spelling-bee words – factotum, an employee who does all kinds of work – to distract you from the big picture.

Your belief that this tug-of-war between journalists and PR has been going on for years and if a journo periodically falls into the moat, it counter-balances the “Dear PR Lady” posts, is misplaced.

Whether you represent the Kumquat Growers or another software company disrupting the status quo, it’s in our best interest for the public to perceive the media as credible and objective. That’s what enables the storytelling in The New York Times to wield 10X the influence of a news release. So when your company appears in The New York Times, even if the story is balanced with both positives and negatives, the net takeaway is still a positive for the company’s public profile.

But here’s the problem

The media’s credibility and objectivity continue to erode as illustrated by the Pew Research study below.

Pew Report pr public relations business communication

Back to the Carr lament, journalists agreeing to let organizations approve their quotes only accelerates this erosion.

What can we do to help?

Glad you asked.

I propose we start a campaign to bolster the credibility of our journalistic brothers called “Just Say No to No.”

In other words, we band together to say no to the proposition:

  • No quote approval = no access

Because it seems that journalists can’t say “no.”

who's with me pr public relations business communication

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8 comments

8 Comments so far

  1. Sam Whitmore September 24th, 2012 7:25 am

    Lou…

    Hear hear.

    The newsmakers who insist on quotes getting read back to them generally are ambivalent on getting publicity in the first place. Pharma, big ag, energy, national politicians et al are all about command-and-control and can take or leave any given opportunity for publicity.

    It’s nice to see the NYT back off from offering the read-back in the first place. Alas, conservative-minded, business-friendly titles won’t see the harm.

    Sam

  2. Lou Hoffman September 24th, 2012 7:32 am

    Thanks for weighing in Sam.

    That’s a good point.

    The balance of power does play a role in this “dance.”

    Although if all journalists from major media properties said “no” to national politicians, I think we’d see the problem go away.

  3. Gini Dietrich September 25th, 2012 4:36 am

    It really pains me that the industry still hasn’t figured out its relationship with journalists. Approving quotes? As if.

  4. Lou Hoffman September 25th, 2012 7:09 am

    I know.

  5. Sandy Fewkes October 2nd, 2012 8:17 pm

    A well trained spokesperson should be able to handle it!! So it’s up to us PR people to have well-trained, well-informed, and suitable spokespeople.

    However, there is a special case in the area of politics, and this is where it is really important for the journalists to capture the story/the politician’s stand on particular issues, and really drill in. This is an essential component of our Democracy – honest & fair reporting to the public so that the people can have the information they need to vote. The failing of this (fair reporting) really concerns me these days in journalism. I would be horrified to think that any national media outlet (or other) would allow Obama (or any politician) to read his quote(s) before they appear in print! This would degrade the Democracy that our country is built upon, and the important role that journalism plays as a part of it.

  6. hoffman October 3rd, 2012 10:25 am

    Totally agree.

    Like you, I was surprised to learn that journalists were allowing politicians to “clean up” their quotes before publishing.

  7. Patrick McGee December 15th, 2013 8:29 am

    Root cause: CONTROL: the quotee isn’t certain about what they are saying, so they need an insurance policy. They then get in habit of post-quote cleanup. Solution: don’t respond unless you’ve done some thinking to get to certainty. Clean it up pre-quote. Exception: I think don’t trust media and have experienced or worry about the true ‘mis-quote’. In those cases, if the editor isn’t reading back the quote, why trust that particular journalist to fix it? Also, notice how this doesn’t come up in recorded electronic interviews? We let those pass or just don’t do those interviews. Glad I found you Hoffman. Going to deep dive your archives over the holidays.

  8. hoffman December 15th, 2013 10:39 am

    I agree with your points. But I also think there’s a dynamic in play similar to the person playing poker who has all his chips so can exert his/her will on the table. Big brands/companies/politicians do the same … because they can. Happy holidays.

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