No, I’m not talking about the government shutdown. (Remember, I said “intelligent and well-meaning people.”)
I’m talking about a smaller logjam you’ve probably all run into. It’s the question of whether, and how, a reference customer could review their quotes for a story in a trade publication. Because neither I, nor the customer, nor the PR firm involved was specific enough about what sort of review the customer would get, all three of us ended up spinning our wheels for no reason.
How We Got Here
Here’s how it played out: The PR firm for a vendor put me in touch with an insightful, informed user at a prominent company. We had a great conversation, at the end of which he asked if he could review his comments before publication.
I checked with my editor, who said it was OK to send just the comments I would use, but not the entire story. So I spent an hour or so reviewing the source’s comments, pulling out and cleaning out what I thought usable, and sent them to him.
He replied that he and his internal teams needed to see the entire story to understand the points of view, how I was positioning the user’s company, what other sources I would quote, and “the context where the quotes would be used.”
While the user has generously offered to run at least one quote by his internal review process if I can put it in context, I (and the user, and the PR firm and vendor) won’t get nearly the value out of the interview we all should.
One Editor, Please
Sure, the user is right that context matters. By clever positioning, a writer can make even an accurate quote make a customer look bad. But letting a source, in effect, edit the full written draft of a story opens unmanageable can of worms.
Suppose, for example, the user made an entirely valid point about the shortcomings of virtual private networks. Their legal department might say that implies their company’s security is weak and the comment has to go, even if it was accurate and presented in context. Or, how about if their PR department didn’t like the fact we quoted one of their competitors (again, accurately) in a way that made the competitor look like it had a competitive edge? How about if an analyst made a provocative prediction in paragraph four that made the customer, quoted in paragraph five, fear they’d be associated with something so negative?
Imagine the back and forth negotiations it would take to satisfy both the PR and legal teams in this one customer. Now, multiply that by the dozen or more sources I might quote in a story. Like the government, the editing process would pretty much shut down. What’s worse, once everyone sanitized and prettified their statements so no one could possibly take offense, the story would put readers to sleep and say nothing.
Can’t We All Get Along?
I’ve found a useful compromise (if my editors will go for it) is to read back direct quotes over the phone, with a verbal general description of where the quote fits in the story. For example: “In this section I describe the challenges of e-mail archiving, and this quote illustrates the pros and cons of deduplication.” That give the source a comfort level for what they’ll say and the context for it, without giving their legal and PR teams fishing rights to find other potential problems.
At the very least, it’s up to PR firms to ask reference customers exactly what level of spoken or written review they or their teams will require of quotes used in stories, and to make the reporter aware of those requirements before scheduling an interview.
Otherwise, you might find yourself compared to — horror of horrors — a member of Congress. Let me know what’s worked for you in avoiding quote review gridlock.
Filed under: PR/Marketing Writing Tips
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