Within the new series „Calling the Network“, we will sporadically ask some of our international colleagues around the globe to comment on trends, phenomena and principles of international Public Relations and Public Affairs. The first post is on a common procedure in Germany causing stunned head shaking in many other countries – the authorization of interviews and quotes prior to publication.
Inappropriate censorship or necessary fact checking?
Interview and quote authorization is common practice in Germany since 1958. The legend says, news magazine “DER SPIEGEL” is the point of origin of a development that still causes incredulous astonishment among international media and PR professionals today. It became increasingly difficult to get high-level interviewees, politicians or business leaders for the hard talk format SPIEGEL-Gespräch. These well-known personalities pushed for some kind of reassurance. Thus, the magazine’s journalistic bloodhounds had to offer the copy of the interview for approval prior to publication.
Since then, interview and quote authorization gradually became part of German journalism – and, periodically, a subject of debate among journalists, PR people and those who generally see the freedom of the press jeopardized by this approach.
The debate has flared up again since Sabia Schwarzer, the new head of corporate communications with international insurance giant Allianz, recently announced that she would break with the German tradition of authorizing interviews and quotes prior to publication. In doing so, she is plausibly following a simple principle: “Writing and interpreting a story is the job of a journalist and not the job of a company”, she said to German trade publication prmagazin – and sparked another debate within the media community.
Don’t mistake a friendly offer for an open invitation
Indeed, interview and quote authorization is an offer to check facts but it is never an invitation to edit and rewrite an accurately transcribed interview. Some of those who did not comply with this rule were made painfully aware of their rule breaking. Here are two well-known examples from Germany: Olaf Scholz, now the First Mayor of the city of Hamburg, heavily edited an interview with die tageszeitung (taz) when he was general secretary of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) a couple of years ago. The publication printed the interview but blackened all parts Scholz edited. The business paper Handelsblatt once published only the questions of an interview with BNP Paribas banker Baudouin Prot who rewrote the interview several times and finally revoked the publication. BNP later published the (final) answers on their website.
When we asked seven colleagues from Canada, Finland, France, Kenya, South Korea, Thailand and the US about this specific topic of media relations, we realized that authorization of interviews is obviously not widely used in international PR as a concept. Here is what the network says:
“In Canada we would NEVER counsel a client to ask a reporter to see the story in advance. That usually is not met well by journalists. And media do not allow executives or press departments to edit their copy post-interview. There are (rare) instances when they may provide relevant paragraphs or quotes and ask you to check for accuracy, especially if the material is technical in nature, but that is not an invitation to re-write the journalist’s copy. More often, they’ll just call and fact check their story. Sometime in conversation the subject of an interview may choose to go “off the record” with a reporter for the purpose of providing additional detail or context that they wouldn’t like to see attached to their name. But there is of course risk in that so most executives would only do that in exceptional circumstances and even then only if they had a very good relationship with a reporter.”
Jason MacDonald, H+K Canada (Ottawa)
“Quote and interview approval is unusual in South Korea. Korean journalists rarely double check quotes due to time constraints. Since journalists are known to combine quotes with opposing arguments or perspectives from undisclosed sources and the interviewed corporate spokesperson often does not precisely know the context of the article, companies are reluctant to talk to journalists about serious issues. Most media will however correct mistaken facts in online articles.”
“Here in Kenya – especially with the dailies – the journalists do not like to share the quotes or interviews prior to publication. The journalists would rather ask further questions to clarify any issue but not share the story itself. The only exception, if at all and it rarely happens, would be with long lead magazines and that only if the topic is very technical.”
Sonali Das, H+K Kenya
“In general, the media in Finland have very high integrity and standards. Finland has ranked #1 in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index for the past six years (2011–2016). There is a set of guidelines issued by the Council for Mass Media – including the rights of interviewer and interviewee. The basic principle is that “decisions concerning the content of media must be made in accordance with journalistic principles. The power to make such decisions must not under any circumstances be surrendered to any party outside the editorial office.” In practice, many times the journalist will offer to send the entire interview article for fact checking to the client or us. We would only suggest corrections related to a) factual errors in the text and/or b) specific wording in the interviewee quotes. Any attempt to rewrite or edit the article would be likely to meet hostility from the journalist. However, in some cases, they might run the story without having the quotes approved – but this is rare and mostly applies to very urgent news topics.”
Michael Jääskeläinen, H+K Finland
“In general, Thai media are not open to providing articles or quotes in order for executives to approve. Business media in particular are not open to approvals and daily newspapers will deny such requests. However, some long-lead publications, such as lifestyle magazines or marketing industry magazines, are amenable to pre-review of articles prior to publication. In fact, some women’s magazines will proactively send articles beforehand for fact-checking. However, the majority of media in a business executive interview context will not allow for review of articles or quotes before going to print.”
Jennifer Poulson, H+K Thailand
“There are some instances when interviewees want to review articles prior publication. This is a definite faux-pas and a complete misunderstanding of how journalists work in France. It may happen on very rare occasions: at the request of a journalist when a subject is very technical, or if there is a good rapport between the journalist and the interviewee – but this should be seen as a favour and would only concern quotes, not the full article.”
Thierry Derrien, H+K France
“Quote approval in the US is the exception not the rule. We almost never see it with trade media. And it happens only occasionally with national business media – primarily honored only if the nature of the interview is sensitive or on an embargoed topic.”
Lisa Cradit, H+K USA (New York)