Spokespeople should (still) have names

I got a too-familiar question in an e-mail from a publicist after Sunday’s USA Today column ran: Can you please update the story to attribute my quote to a company spokesperson?

That’s a scenario I’ve been dealing with for years. PR rep e-mails me a comment, I run it with the rep’s name attached, they offer one of the following reasons:

• I’m not a company employee;

• It’s supposed to be the company speaking;

• That’s just our policy.

All of those blank-nametag rationales have some logic behind them, but they suffer from the problem that as a journalist, I’m not a mind reader but do have my notebook open all the time. And in that notebook, quotes normally follow the names of the people who said those words.

It is not my job to guess that you want to speak on a not-for-attribution basis if you don’t say so. And removing a detail that I know to be true after the story’s been published won’t hypnotize the Internet’s hive mind into forgetting that it was there before.

(This habitual insistence on anonymity is especially annoying coming from somebody paid to represent a social network that enforces a real-names policy–yes, Facebook, I’m talking about you. It’s also annoying when somebody wants to defend their employer or client as a faceless source, as if doing so without putting your name on the line somehow makes you more trustworthy.)

So I had to tell this PR firm’s staffer: Sorry, no can do. As far as I can tell, the staffer’s employment remains intact. I hope that continues to be the case.

But since people continue to be surprised by this, let me offer this reminder: If your job is to answer media questions for the company, I will use your name. If you ask me not to, I can honor that request–subject to my editor saying otherwise–but expect that I won’t shelter your exact words inside quotation marks. That’s a privilege I would rather reserve for named sources.

If, however, you want to talk without your name attached because speaking otherwise will risk your job or worse, your conversation will stay safe with me. Encrypted, if you prefer.

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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.