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‘Can I see your article before it is published’ is arguably the most insulting question you or your spokesperson could ask a journalist in the UK.
Not only does it suggest a complete lack of trust in the reporter, but it is also pretty pointless as no journalist with any credibility is going to agree with the request.
The question of editorial control can also lead to some bad publicity of its own as the very public spat which saw a journalist brand an interviewee an ‘insecure diva’ shows.
Reporter Ginny Dougary claimed, through an article in The Guardian headlined ‘How BBC star Clare Balding nicked my byline’, that parts of an interview with the broadcaster which she had written for Saga magazine were changed because the publication had given Ms Balding ‘copy control’.
She said: “I experienced two firsts last week. One was that I asked for my byline to be removed from the interview I had written, which was a direct consequence of the other first: the subject of my interview being given, without my prior knowledge, copy control and – in a breath taking liberty – removing sections of my interview and replacing them with her own, self-promoting, words.”
These claims were denied by both the publication and the interviewee.
The magazine said it was ‘the editor’s decision to edit’ the article and that quotes were ‘checked for accuracy alone’. It added that ‘it was the editor’s view that the original article did not cover the wide range of issues that Clare holds dear’ and that ‘new quotes were sourced to rebalance the article against deadline.”
Ms Balding meanwhile took to Twitter to refute the claims, including one that she had been asked to be described as ‘lovely’.
Re the Saga saga, today has been an exercise in self-restraint.The editor has issued a statement clarifying that she asked for changes (1/2)— Clare Balding (@clarebalding) October 1, 2017
(2/2) and I did not have copy approval. I would certainly never ask anyone to call me 'lovely'. Gorgeous maybe - but never lovely! #Sagasaga— Clare Balding (@clarebalding) October 1, 2017
I’m not convinced that anyone emerges from this Saga saga with any credit, but it shows just how damaging the question of editorial control can be – and this was a soft promotional piece, not a hard news item or challenging subject.
This piece by Ginny Dougary is nothing short of a Fame-seeking Hatchet job: How BBC star Clare Balding nicked byline https://t.co/BlqiLyO1Xc— Linda Riley (@LindaRiley8) October 1, 2017
Don't damn Clare Balding, though she deserves to be damned, damn the spinleless editor of Saga https://t.co/Sbfjw6YFHW— Nick Cohen (@NickCohen4) October 1, 2017
We've interviewed Clare Balding loads of times and she never asked for copy approval. Can't imagine she'd suddenly insist on it.— boydhilton (@boydhilton) October 1, 2017
During my career as comms manager I was often asked by spokespeople whether they could see articles before journalists published them.
For some it was a sort of throw away ‘would it be possible’ type suggestion which was typically underpinned by a lack of media experience or recent media training.
But often it was by senior people who should have known better.
However, I only ever posed the question once and that was when the interview with a trade publication had included particularly complex and sensitive figures. And I only asked to check the statistics, despite my spokesperson wanting to approve the entire story.
The key thing to remember is that the journalist is not writing a press release for you or producing some form of advertorial and they are not an employee of your organisation – so why would they share their copy?
Apart from anything else, if you came back with lots of changes, they could potentially face rewriting great swathes of the article all over again – not something which is realistically going to happen in a time pressed newsroom.
But, while you cannot control what they write, you and your spokesperson can, with good media training, control what is said to the reporter.
On our media training courses we tell delegates to outline the key points they want to get across at the start of any print interview, and then provide a summary of those points at the end. This helps to focus the interview and gives the journalist a clear idea of what you want to get across.
Reiterating key messages is also important and supporting them with human, relatable examples will make them much more reader friendly and increasingly likely to be used.
It is also important spokespeople are wary of saying something which could take the focus of the article away from the main subject you want to get across, through speculating, allowing reporters to put words in your mouth or by commenting on wider issues as part of the ‘while you are here’ type question.
And, although it may sound simple, speaking more slowly will make sure you have been reported correctly and understood.
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