Rules for engaging a reporter
What are the flacks in the public relations offices teaching their clients these days? It's certainly not how to talk to the press.
September 18, 2003
The rules of engagement are quite simple, really. But for some reason sources are woefully ignorant of them. (Some journalists are willingly uninformed of these rules, as well. Take for instance the case of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who went as far as to invent conversations with unnamed sources and pretended to be in places he never was. The guy should start publishing fiction.)
But I digress. For those publicists and people on the quote circuit who want to make sure they're quoted accurately and fairly, here are the rules of the game:
- Rule 1: Anything you say to a reporter is on the record, i.e., fair game for being quoted in an article, unless you tell the reporter otherwise— ahead of time.
- Rule 2: This, like many things in life is negotiable— to a point.
A source can request many things; the key is to ask for agreement with the reporter before granting the interview, not afterwards. Otherwise the reporter has no obligation to honor your request, which when denied can lead to a very ugly conversation indeed.
That said, the requests have to be reasonable. I recall one fellow who demanded (yes, demanded) that he retain copyright to any and all things he said to me. I had to explain to this poor undiscovered genius that even I don't retain the copyright to many of my published works, so couldn't possibly grant his request. I then declined to interview him figuring he'd require too much care and feeding.
A more reasonable request is to review your quotes or paraphrases of what you've said. The review could take place immediately following the interview or before the article is published, by phone or in writing.
A source can also ask to review the completed article prior to publication. But many reporters and their editors don't go for this. It means more work for journalists, who are always pressed by deadlines. It can also mislead the source into thinking they have the final edit before an article is published, which of course, they do not.
In the end, it all comes down to respect of one another— journalist and source. Don't ask me to grant you copyright to what you've told me and I won't fabricate conversations with you. And you can quote me on that. -David Southgate