New rule? If I can’t use your name as a company rep, I won’t use your exact quote either.

Stories usually call company publicists “spokespeople,” which seems increasingly funny given how many of them don’t want to be quoted speaking anything as a person.

Quotation/apostrophe key on a MacBook AirInstead, it can only be the company saying anything. Self-aware PR pros know to stipulate their not-for-attribution condition at the top of their reply, but others complain after the fact when I quote them by name in a story.

This widespread tech-industry practice has bothered me for a long time. What I write has my name attached, and it seems only fair that people I quote who are paid to speak for a company or client get the same treatment. And when I quote people without their name, fact-checking my reporting or holding those sources accountable for incorrect info gets a lot harder.

(People speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear losing their job or worse remain a separate issue. If you fall into that category, I will keep your name out of the story. See my contact-me page for details about how to get in touch, including two encrypted communications channels.)

The usual way to work around that is to run a quote from the publicist but attribute it only to a nameless and faceless “company spokesperson” or “company publicist.” But I’m now thinking that the more effective response is to paraphrase a company rep’s not-for-attribution response instead of quoting it verbatim.

I can’t force PR reps to go against company policy, but they can’t force me to run their exact, management-approved words. Withholding that privilege and characterizing their answers in the language of my choice seems to be the only card I can play in this situation. Should I put it on the table?

 

 

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.