Should PRs ever ask for copy approval? Debate rumbles over Clare Balding case

Editorial control should (almost always) reside with the journalist - that's the consensus of PR pros contacted by PRWeek, after the issue of copy approval came to the fore following a spat involving TV presenter Clare Balding.

Journalist Ginny Dougary claimed Balding had been given editorial control over an article she wrote for Saga Magazine and had been allowed to remove and re-write sections of the interview.

Writing in The Guardian, Dougary said: "I experienced two firsts last week. One was that I asked for my byline to be removed from an interview I had written, which was a direct consequence of the other first: the subject of my interview being given, without my prior knowledge, copy control and – in a breathtaking liberty – removing sections of my interview and replacing them with her own, self-promoting, words."

Balding responded in a series of Tweets (below), saying: "Re the Saga saga, today has been an exercise in self-restraint. The editor has issued a statement clarifying that she asked for the changes and I did not have copy approval."

In a statement to PRWeek, Saga said: "Saga Magazine edited the interview with Clare with the full involvement of the writer, who suggested we add lines ourselves. It was the editor's view that the original article did not cover the wide range of issues that Clare holds dear. The writer is mistaken in thinking that copy approval was given. It was not.

"Saga Magazine does not offer copy control, and interviews that require it are declined. In this case, quotations were checked for accuracy alone. New quotations were sourced to rebalance the article against deadline. It is the editor's decision alone to edit an article that is not exactly right for the magazine and Saga Magazine does not defer that decision to PRs or interviewees."

Balding has been contacted for comment.

Frank PR co-founder Andrew Bloch, who handles Lord Alan Sugar’s personal PR, said copy checking for factual errors was "helpful for all parties", but added that editorial control should always stay with the journalist.

Bloch said: "A PR should trust a journalist to carry out an interview, and anyone seeking publicity should be comfortable with a range of questions. Having set up hundreds of interviews for Lord Sugar over the last fifteen years or so, I have never once asked for copy approval, nor would I."

Bloch cited one exception to this rule: if it is a first-person interview and the person concerned is telling an intensely personal story.

Bloch said: "This was the case when Frank worked with Stephen Davies, the England cricketer to announce that he was gay. We worked with The Telegraph to ensure the story was communicated in a sensitive way, and they agreed to give us copy approval in return for an exclusive interview."

David Alexander, MD at Calacus PR and former sports journalist, said that early in his PR career he was once reprimanded for not demanding copy approval.

Alexander said: "I thought it strange that my boss would expect any journalist worth their salt to be open to copy approval or review and it’s never something I’ve demanded of a journalist, especially having worked on that side of the fence myself."

Like Bloch, Alexander said the only time when copy approval was "a reasonable request" is if the article is in the first person.

He said: "Sometimes an over-zealous sub editor can edit what a client has written (or more likely we have written on their behalf) and changed the sense of something important. Or they have written it in the first person after interviewing a client, which provides even more opportunity for misinterpretation or a lack of understanding."

Max Dundas, founder at Dundas Communications, argued that Balding would have been blameless if Saga had offered her copy approval in exchange for doing the interview relatively last minute. 

Dundas said: "Why wouldn’t she accept such terms if they are being offered upfront? It's certainly not the norm in our experience, but in certain circumstances we do get offered copy approval by journalists and editors. Clearly, though, editorial integrity is of critical importance to both journalism and PR – perhaps titles that offer it should say so in the articles when its given."

Taking a slightly different tone, Hotwire Global consumer MD Emma Hazan said: "Brands should not need copy approval if they have been fully prepped by their PR representative. End of."

Echoing Hazan, several PR professionals have also taken to social media, arguing that editorial control should also always reside with the journalist.

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