Quote approval a hot topic, but a gray area, for PR pros, journalists

Quote approval is not an everyday practice among PR professionals, but many contend it is sometimes necessary to ensure accuracy by the media.

Quote approval is not an everyday practice among PR professionals, but many contend it is sometimes necessary to ensure accuracy by the media.

The subject came to the forefront this week when writer Michael Lewis said he agreed to quote approval from the White House for a Vanity Fair profile on President Barack Obama. In July, a New York Times story revealed quote approval had become widespread on the campaign trail, and a column by David Carr in the Sunday Times said the practice is also spreading to business coverage.

The Times introduced a policy Thursday banning after-the-fact quote approval, and media professionals have criticized both press aides who demand review and fellow journalists who allow it. Yet many PR professionals also disparage the practice, saying it can harm a brand's story and relationships with the media.

“It takes the credibility out of earned media to ask for quote confirmation. That's a dangerous road to go down for our industry,” says Jonathan Zaback, partner and global media director at Finn Partners.

Some corporate PR leaders, such as Symantec CCO Harry Pforzheimer and Coca-Cola VP of corporate communications Ben Deutsch, say they do not ask journalists for quote approval as a condition for access to executives. On the agency side, where media relations often spans industries, executives say the practice is sometimes used in “sensitive” situations, such as company crises, financial earnings reports, and with government or public policy leaders.

Steve Naru, SVP, partner, and director of the business media group at Fleishman-Hillard, says clients have requested quote approval when journalists wanted to use information that had previously been off the record.

The rise of social and digital media has prompted more companies to be cautious when speaking with the press, says Maggie O'Neill, partner and senior director at Peppercom. Some clients also ask to see journalists' questions in advance of interviews, she adds.

“We've seen an uptick in the number of people wanting [quote approval], because more brands are seeing the impact of the social space, which doesn't have the same rules [as traditional media],” O'Neill says. “I think executives are all on edge. They're so concerned about how quickly something can turn. Brands are trying to manage as much as possible, because there's so much they can't control.”

If a journalist refuses to grant quote approval, Peppercom would still advise their client to go forward with the story, O'Neill says.

Many PR professionals cite a concern for accuracy as the main reason for requesting quote review. Lack of training and resources, as well as beat turnover among journalists, can lead to factual errors, agency executives explain.

“So many journalists do get it wrong,” says Valerie Di Maria, principal at the 10 company, an agency that works with clients in the technology, financial, industrial, and healthcare industries. “It's not a question of trust, but often times a journalist gets put on a new beat, they don't have enough training, and they're learning as they go. It's hard for them to learn as they go when they're talking to the CEO.”

Trade media outlets are more likely to assent to quote review than mainstream reporters, Di Maria and others say. Overall, journalists often agree to change quotes if there are inaccuracies, with some even proactively reaching out to PR representatives to check facts.

David Rubin, a journalist and professor and dean emeritus at Syracuse University's SI Newhouse School of Public Communications, says he would assent to changing a quote if it was a matter of accuracy and would be helpful to the audience.

“If a PR person requested an improvement to a quote, and I thought it added information or made it clearer, I would say ‘fine,'” he says. “But if [the change] would dilute the story, change its focus, or make the boss look better when he or she shouldn't, I would say no.”

Still, many PR professionals say to their clients that speaking openly with the media, while risky, is more valuable in brands' long-term efforts to tell their stories than trying to tightly control the message.

“The benefit of media is people respect it because it's third-party and mostly unbiased. By trying to control it, it's going to lose some of that,” O'Neill says.

Jennifer Risi, EVP and head of Ogilvy Public Relations' Media Influence group, recalls a time when client Mexico Tourism Board agreed to an in-depth feature with a media outlet. Facing turmoil within the country and potential negative coverage, the organization asked if it would be able to see the story ahead of time, Risi says.

“We told them that to really change perception you have to go out and talk to the press and be open,” Risi recalls, adding that mainstream outlets generally don't allow subjects to see the story before publication. “You have to take the good, the bad, and the ugly, and go out there and tell the story.”

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