Media personalities have made a bit of hay this week over the fact that the White House requested and received the right to review and approve of all the quotes that appeared in Michael Lewis’s upcoming Vanity Fair article on the president and his team.
Sounds like a media scandal, right? Well, not really. According to The New York Times columnist David Carr, quote approval is nothing but standard operating procedure–and it’s hardly limited to the world of politics. Subjects ranging from Wall Street super-bank CEOs to Silicon Valley tech pioneers and even startup managers have grown used to getting their way when it comes to press coverage. According to Carr and his colleagues, key contacts now expect “the kind of consideration that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.”
In other words, journalists may have trouble accessing important figures unless they agree to this new kind of relationship, quotation approval rights and all. The practice may clash with classic journalistic ethics, but it’s part of the media landscape now. The Times claims that it will begin pushing back harder against this sort of behavior among its reporters, but from where we sit it looks a whole lot like everyday SOP.
We can only assume that this practice occurs at all levels of the PR industry. When does it become an ethical problem?
A PR professional’s primary responsibility is making his or her client look as good as possible, so quotation approval makes sense as a means to ensure positive relationships between journalists, representatives and clients. Some, however, see it as a major ethical lapse. Carr takes aim at PR reps, noting that truly juicy quotes–“the kind that P.R. folks love to rub out”–often come closest to the truth. The bloggers at PR News Online, on the other hand, disagree with Carr’s underlying assertion that aggressive PR practices tie the hands of journalists; they believe that quotation approval stains “the essence of journalism” and that the PR industry needs to fight against the perception that it is responsible for what is clearly a two-way trend.
Peter Himler of Forbes agrees that we can’t lay all the blame at the feet of PR “puppets”–he believes that both sides commit ethical lapses in the interest of chasing and publishing larger-than-life stories.
PR pros: Have you ever exercised the power of quotation approval on behalf of clients? How closely do you control third-party content, and what do you think of representatives who aggressively seek to monitor journalists’ material as it relates to their clients?