From the Department of Free Advice: Put it in Writing

Scottie is new to this blog game. I got a lot of positive feedback about my first post, "Now this is a story..." and I thought, "I should give the people what they want." And what do they want, besides more blog posts? Free advice! So without giving away all my trade secrets, I am starting a series, From the Department of Free Advice. I'll be handing out a few, select gems I've learned throughout my decade in communications. Now for lesson number one.


I've trained clients and colleagues on how to talk to the press for years, and I've been the spokeswoman for a number of candidates and clients.  There are right ways to do things, and there are very wrong ways to do things. My very first boss in communications, who was unflappable, gave me some key advice that I always think about when a reporter needs an on-the-record quote.

One afternoon, I was sitting in my boss's office while she was on the phone with a reporter. She wrapped up the conversation with, "Hey, I've got to run. But I'll send you an email with a quote for the record." She hung up, turned to me, and said:

"I didn't have to run, it is just better to send the on-the-record quote in writing. That way, you get to think about exactly what you want to appear in print."

This is excellent advice. Reporters are usually not thrilled to get something in writing because they think it is less candid, or more "canned." But a tighter, more compelling quote actually helps them too. A rambling quote given over the phone, while you're distracted by your computer screen and co-workers, is not as good as the concise quote you have time to perfect in an email.

Reporters might protest. They might even vaguely threaten you with some line about: "Well, I'd really rather get something in person or over the phone. Otherwise I'm going to have to say it was provided in a written statement." I cannot stress this enough: No one reading the story will think less of you for providing a written statement. A reporter might guilt you, try to rush you, catch you off guard, and make you feel like you have to respond right then and there. Do not let this phase you. Tell them you'll send them something in writing and hang up the phone. 

Let's see a real world example of a misfire. I recently read a New York Times article about the soft drink industry paying scientists to pump out studies claiming soda doesn't cause obesity. Leaving the ethics and substance of the story aside, this quote, given by what I can only guess was a very defensive scientist, jumped out at me:

"Does that make us totally corrupt in everything we do?"

Lord help me, that is a bad quote.

I assume the scientist got an unexpected call from the reporter. The reporter probably challenged him by asking why his group wasn't more transparent in disclosing their funding source, and he lashed out. At least I hope that is what happened, because it would be really inexcusable if he actually took the time to write that in an email. Also, sweet baby Jesus, HE was the one who brought up corruption! That was his word, not the reporter'sOBVIOUSLY the reporter will use that part of the quote. 

Learn from the possibly corrupt scientist's mistake.

Remember this lesson from the Department of Free Advice: Whenever possible, talk on background on the phone, hang up, and send the quote in writing if the reporter wants something on-the-record.

Do you have a question for the Department of Free Advice? Tweet it at me, @abigailgardner, and maybe I'll answer it here. Cheers!