When Throwaway Comments Become Your Lead Quote
Many years ago, a client told me a story that serves as a useful cautionary tale for everyone who interacts with reporters.
The man, who represented a government agency, was friendly with a local reporter. The two socialized after hours on a regular basis, but had an agreement that whenever the reporter called his buddy at the government agency in his professional role, the usual rules of media interviewing would apply.
One day, the reporter called his pal at work and asked for a comment regarding an allegation of wrongdoing within the agency. The agency representative, who hadn’t heard that rumor, was caught by surprise and immediately reacted by saying two words: “Jesus Christ.” He then proceeded to issue a more official comment.
When the story came out the next day, the interview was reduced to just two words, something along these lines:
“When asked about these allegations, the government representative said, ‘Jesus Christ.’”
I thought of that incident again because another client recently told me a story about a lobbyist who lived through something similar. It seems that the bill for which she had advocated—and that passed the legislature—was suddenly halted due to a judge’s injunction.
The lobbyist wasn’t aware that the judge had issued that ruling—so when a reporter called her for a reaction, she was caught off guard. Her comment, which was included in the news story, was this:
I suspect she said that in the understated way people sometimes do when they’re confronted by bad news, but the quote came off as almost dismissive—or at least far from what I’m sure she wanted her main message to be.
In both of those cases, the spokespersons made comments intended as throwaways, not for inclusion in the resulting news story. But the reporters did nothing wrong by including those comments, as they were made as part of an on-the-record exchange.
In my experience, these types of comments usually hit the cutting room floor. But not always. So avoid making them.
Editor’s note: A few small details in this post were changed to help our clients retain their confidentiality.
Great article, and how true it is. It was 33 years ago as a young deputy sheriff and not the official public information officer that I “friend” reported asked me about 20 young nude adults skinny dippers in a private country club pool. The three inch column’s head line was “Sheriff says No Nudes is Good Nudes”. The reporter did the story, over a beer with me and story telling. Rules were established after that little news flash. I didn’t know the article was even in the paper until the Sheriff himself called me and reminded me that I was in fact the not the official spokesperson for his office. Since that day, I have retired from law enforcement and was the official public affairs officer for over 20 years. Thank you for your continued education.