Frankie Flack: Why quote approval is sometimes necessary

by
frankieflack

Editor’s note: Here is the latest missive from Frankie Flack, our anonymous New York-based PR executive.

In July of last year Jeremy Peters of The New York Times penned a piece titled “Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back” that struck like a sudden earthquake in the journalism and public relations field.

Peters deftly put on paper the all-too-common recipe for making news in our modern era and major media organizations quickly changed their tastes. Specifically, Peters laid out how “quote approval,” the process in which PR can review quotes prior to publication, had become so pervasive it was just an accepted reality of doing business. The AP, New York Times, National Journal and others all put out statements clarifying the appropriate use of this practice.

As someone who frequently requests quote approval and knows many others who do the same, I can say firsthand the impact was immediate, but perhaps not dramatic. A few times I was told “I just can’t do that anymore,” and even more frequently I was asked “is it really necessary?”

Six months later I can say those concerns have largely passed.

There are undoubtedly many sides to this debate, but in my opinion quote approval is a necessary evil of business journalism. I am sure that this practice is overused and in some cases outright abused, but in many ways it offers critical benefits.

I want to be specific about business journalism here not only because it is what I know, but also because I believe quote approval is used differently versus other topics, especially politics. Most of all, business does not require media for survival while good press is the lifeblood of politics. This creates sharply different motivations for how sources view and try to use the press.

Quote approval is beneficial almost entirely because business, particularly finance, often requires a sophisticated understanding of complex topics. Furthermore, this language is almost intentionally confusing. Gillian Tett of The Financial Times has theorized, I believe correctly, that the complex language of finance is purposefully exclusionary. Using quote approval allows both the journalist and PR person to ensure that quotes are captured accurately.

Certainly reporters and editors who know the space can argue against this, but unfortunately the wall of financial language can even block the most experienced. In fact, just this week, an editor at a trade newsletter was working on a story and interviewed a client of mine about a technical trading product. It was clear she knew this space well, far better than me. However, during follow-up we found out a critical concept on how the product works was misunderstood.

Arguably more importantly, quote approval is a necessary evil now because it is the only way to get good sources to talk. There is no question, lawyers, bankers, fund managers and other key sources have become accustomed to the practice. Jack Shafer probably made this point best in his column for Reuters in which he looked at the mismatch of resources. Too many journalists chasing too few sources. As someone who has represented major players and marginal ones, I can say that the lesser known source does not enjoy the same privileges.

The reason this happens is mostly because these sources are generally wary of the press and feel more comfortable speaking openly if they feel like they have a safety net. For example, lawyers are trained to be precise with their language to an unmatched degree. The idea of words hitting paper without proper review would keep them up at night. Furthermore, as mentioned above, business does not require media coverage, so the incentives are skewed in any media/source relationship. To be blunt, good sources typically have far less to gain from a reporter then the reporter does from the source.

These are two key reasons why quote approval needs to exist in business journalism, but it does not provide blanket approval. I believe that quote approval exists for accuracy and should not be allowed when the core intent of the quote is altered after the fact.

PR people need to be able to manage their clients expectations both in setting ground-rules and when editing a quote. I often tell clients that they can check the quote for facts but are not allowed to wordsmith.

As mentioned above, the reason quote approval works in business journalism is largely for accuracy.

Journalists should also be clear about the rules and not be afraid to enforce them. Don’t give us the space to abuse the practice, because I guarantee the line will only continue to be pushed.