Quotes should have names attached

I can count on this happening at least once a month: after I write a story that includes a quote from a company’s publicist, I get a call or an e-mail from said PR rep asking that I take her or his name out of the piece.

The reason for that request is almost always some variation of “It’s supposed to be the company speaking, not me.” And every time, I have to give the same response: I didn’t know that and you certainly didn’t ask for anonymity before replying to my questions, so the name stays.

It’s never a fun conversation. I take no pleasure in thinking that I’ve caused somebody to have a lousy day at the office, let alone a career-limiting one. But I have obligations of my own.

There’s honesty. Corporations, contrary to occasional belief, are not people. They have no mouths with which to speak. Instead, human beings–paid to speak for the companies involved–told me something, and their identities are as relevant as those of anybody else quoted in the piece.

Accountability matters too. I have had PR reps pass on incorrect information. The most effective way to hold them responsible is to attach their names to their words. Identifying them also contributes to reproducibility–making it easier for other reporters to prove or disprove what I found.

Finally, taking correct information out of a story sets a lousy precedent for post-publication editing.

I think anonymous quotes are overused in stories, especially political coverage, but I’m not categorically opposed to them. If you tell me upfront that your boss, employer or client doesn’t want you named, I can honor that respect–after I try persuading you otherwise, especially if the information at stake is not widely known. (The weird part is when this negotiation involves a statement that makes the publicist’s client look good.)

But if you don’t offer any such indication, my default setting as a journalist is to use your name. How should I know otherwise? I am not a mind reader–and any clairvoyancy skills that I do possess must be reserved for dealing with my editors.

People who aren’t paid to speak for their employer, especially those who tell me things that their employer doesn’t want shared, are a different case. I know, because I helped one source lose his job when I didn’t conceal his identity carefully enough in a post I wrote about the online reemergence of an amusing mid-’90s clip from NBC’s Today Show.

That was one of the lowest moments of my time at the Post. I don’t need to repeat that experience. If you’re telling me something that puts your job at risk, I will keep your name and any other identifying details out of the story. But if you’re telling me something because that’s your job, your name belongs in it.

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6 thoughts on “Quotes should have names attached

  1. The “I don’t want to be named as a source” concept for PR pros comes from our belief (much like reporters) that we shouldn’t be a part of the story. Yes, we are often representing our clients and their points of view, but it is ultimately about the client and it should ultimately be positioning the client in the best possible way. That can’t really be done if you, as the PR pro, are named as a source in an article about your client.

    But it’s PR 101 (and common sense) to tell a reporter upfront that you don’t want to be named as a source.

    Now, this notion changes a little on the corporate PR side where PR pros are often serving as official spokespeople for their firms. In that case, it is absolutely necessary and expected for a PR pro to be named as a source in an article about their company because they are the person who represents the company to the media and often to the public. That’s the nature of the job.

    It’s a nuanced situation, no doubt. I can tell you from personal experience that most PR agencies very much frown upon having their employees named as sources in an article about a client. That’s often because, again, it’s all about the client, not the PR firm and most especially not the employee.

    • “The ‘I don’t want to be named as a source’ concept for PR pros comes from our belief (much like reporters) that we shouldn’t be a part of the story.”

      But reporters’ names go at the top of every story.

      • “But reporters’ names go at the top of every story.”
        That depends on the publication. The Economist, for example, doesn’t do bylines.

  2. Keith: Thanks for the inside perspective. I should have spelled out that in some of these cases, it’s company employees saying “don’t use my name with this.”

    wiredog: The Economist is the only byline-free publication I can think of at the moment. I doubt if you could launch one now; with the journalism market as unstable as it is, who would want to write for a new outlet of uncertain viability that strips you of your own professional identity?

    – RP

  3. Pingback: New rule? If I can’t use your name as a company rep, I won’t use your exact quote either. | Rob Pegoraro

  4. Pingback: Spokespeople should (still) have names | Rob Pegoraro

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