No, you’re not Barack Obama

When the 2012 US presidential campaigns for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were in full swing, the spotlight suddenly swung onto the cream of the world’s media. News emerged that outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Reuters were allowing campaign officials to censor quotes before publication.

“The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colourful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative,” an NYT article said. “They are sent by e-mail from the Obama headquarters to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.”

The shock element was that such powerful international news outfits had agreed to this practice, which was called ‘quote approval’. In countries like the Netherlands, it’s standard practice for journalists to interview people and then to submit the quotes for approval before the article is published.

That may sound appealing: but it’s a double-edged sword for interviewees.

The upside is that you get the chance to correct any inadvertent mistakes made by journalists before your quotes appear. Friendly reporters may even agree to beautify or even remove things you’d rather have said differently or not at all.

The far steeper downside is that it can lure you into a false sense of security during the interview. Instead of carefully watching your words– censoring yourself, if you like – you become loose-lipped in the belief that you, or more likely your comms department or PR agency, can persuade the reporter to scrap or smarten up your quotes after the event.

Say what you mean

You risk shooting your mouth off and so revealing sensitive information, speculating dangerously, or phrasing things in a way that may harm your company’s reputation. And then getting into a ‘discussion’ with the reporter (with you perhaps uttering the taboo yet oft-heard words “Yes, I know I said that, but it’s not what I meant”).

The reporter may then change their copy to suit your wishes – but your relationship with them may be ruined for good. Or they may refuse to adjust the wording – which is their prerogative. This is not internal communications, where the C-suite gets to micro-manage quotes attributed to them. Submitting quotes for checking is a journalistic courtesy, not your legal right. For journalists it’s about the accuracy of their (repeat their) story. Corporate communicators call it ‘quote check’; reporters call it ‘fact check’.

So remember: you have zero control over what a journalist writes, but you have 100% control over what you say. Even if you know you’ll get the quotes for review, pretend to yourself you won’t. Prepare yourself and your messages fully. Know your story, your facts and figures, your examples and anecdotes. And think hard before the interview about the sticky questions you’re likely to get, and how to field them.

Once the questions start coming, stay calm and think very carefully before you answer. Only say things you are happy to be quoted on. If you think all this is easier said than done, rehearse. Get some media training that grills you with nightmare questions until you’re bathed in sweat. Chances are the real interview will then seem like a breeze, and the only person you’ll want to censor is yourself.

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