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Quote checks: a growing curse

May 15, 2018

Over my near four decades as a journalist one of the biggest changes has been the huge growth in demands from PR people – both in-house and external – for quote checks. When I started they were unheard of. Now, hardly an article goes by without at least one request.

They are a blight and that is putting it politely.

They are an insult to professional journalists and a dreadful indictment of the lack of trust PR people have in the people they are responsible for putting in front of the media.

Gather two or three journalists together, mention “quote checks” and they will quickly generate plenty of righteous and totally justified indignation. It isn’t just journalists who are appalled by this curse. Very experienced PR people are too, for reasons that S-J Wrigley of Spotlight Consultancy recently explained in an excellent post on LinkedIn.

I was asked by a publisher to suggest some guidelines for dealing with requests for quote checks – here is what I sent them and which they have largely adopted.

Quote check guidelines

If a journalist correctly identifies themselves as such at the start of a conversation that is clearly aimed at gathering content and comment for publication that conversation is “on the record” unless anything is said to the contrary at the outset.

If the subject of the interview tries to change the status of a conversation part way through that does not mean they can take remarks already made off the record.

This puts the journalist in a strong position as people have no legal or other right to review, amend or withdraw comments made on the record.

There can never be an expectation that an interviewee or the PR team has a right to review quotes. The only exception to this is when one person is the subject of the article, eg a profile piece, and then, legally, they have joint copyright over their quotes (but never the journalist’s context etc). If it is a news article or a feature quoting several people this does not apply.

Requests for quote checks at the end of an interview cannot carry any threat to withdraw permission to use the material. It was said on the record and that cannot be withdrawn retrospectively. This gives the journalist the upper hand in negotiating if that becomes necessary.

Requests for quote checks are sometimes made at the beginning of an interview and the interview is sometimes conditional on agreeing to it. This is an invidious position for a journalist to be placed in.

How should a journalist respond?

This partly depends on whether you need them more than they need you. In general, requests for quote checks should be resisted. The only exceptions may be when the quotes contain a lot of technical information, data, names etc that everyone would feel more comfortable having checked. In these cases you should always stress it is just the facts they are checking.

Celebrity PRs are among the most controlling and will often produce a contract for the journalist to sign before they are allowed to speak to a client. This will make clear that their approval is essential. If you are ever presented with such a contract show it to your company’s lawyers before signing it. If you do not have that luxury then check that they are not exerting control over your words, just over their client’s quotes.

Of course, resisting a request to check quotes might mean that a person or even a whole company might not speak to you for a while. This threat is what PR people are relying on to get you to submit your quotes to them. They are bullying you.

Why should requests be resisted?

They imply a lack of trust in the ability of the journalist to do the job for which they have trained and in which they may have had years of experience. This should be pointed out to people because they often don’t see it from our perspective. Sometimes I have turned it round and asked them if I can come and check whether they are doing their job properly.

Quote check screamThey can lead to unnecessary arguments. What are you going to do if they come back and try to neuter the best comment they made? You have it as an on the record comment (you may have even recorded it), it adds value to the article and you want to use it. They have no right to withdraw it. Stalemate. The journalist is in the driving seat and should drive a hard bargain which might, ultimately, mean refusing the request to change it – publish and be damned. OK, they might be cross and not talk to you for a while but usually there are plenty of other people out there who will speak to you.

They mess up the publishing process. You write an article to a deadline that doesn’t allow time for PR people to poke their noses in and fuss about quotes. The more people you quote in an article, the more chaos quote checks cause. They are often simply impractical.

Quote checks on interviews that are recorded are simply pointless. You are under no obligation to tell people you are recording an interview. This has been clearly established in the courts which only care about whether a journalist has accurately captured what someone said, not how they captured it.

The dumbest requests I get are from people who I have interviewed face-to-face, knowing I was recording the interview. How do they think they are going to dispute what they said?

Ultimately, this is about trust.

Firms need to be able to trust the people we interview to say the right things. They then need to be able to trust us to report that correctly. Relationships with contacts built on anything other trust are usually only transient anyway.

If the person/firm you want to speak to really insists as a pre-condition that you submit quotes for checking and they are so special, have access to the key piece of information, etc that you feel you have to do a deal with the devil, still remind them that they are displaying a lack of trust in our ability to do your job as making them feel guilty might make them less keen to attempt to censor anything they decide they would rather they (or their spokesperson) hadn’t said.

Even if you have agreed to a check that doesn’t mean you have agreed to change anything. Remember once it is on the record, it is always on the record. Publish and be damned.

•••••••••••••••••••

The final blog in this short series will suggest some basic procedures for dealing with complaints about content

The earlier blogs covered:

• Editorial standards: values worth striving for
• Reporting Best Practice: facts, sources and comment
• Editorial standards: maintaining trust, authority and integrity

From → Publishing

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