Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
In our media training sessions, the biggest fear participants share is that they might be misquoted by a journalist. And Ken Cowley’s outrageous comments in The Australian Financial Review have this week terrified people we work with.
Cowley’s quotes may well have trashed his reputation and cost him powerful friends, but his subsequent claims that he was verballed, misquoted and quoted off the record have done even more damage and left journalists lost for words.
It’s not as if Cowley is some newbie rube. He is the former CEO and Chair of News Corporation. He knows the rules of the media game as well as the Fairfax journalist he was talk to, Anne Hyland.
In this stoush, my money’s on the reporter. Partly because of her reputation, but mainly because the Fairfax legal team would have scrutinised every word of Hyland’s recorded interview before publishing.
That and the fact that Cowley hasn’t taken the complaint to the Press Council, which you’d do in a flash if you had a leg to stand on.
So what really happened?
Let’s start with the ‘misquote’: When I unpack claims of executive having been misquoted, it’s usually because the reporter picked up a juicy conflict laden remark, often made off the cuff, instead of the dry and sanitised line the marketing team wanted.
Here's the thing: that's not a misquote, that’s news. If you don’t want to see it in print, don’t say it.
Better still, go in armed with an irresistible and strategic insight the journo will latch on to. And yes we do have a training course on that because it’s a core media skill.
Then there’s ‘off the record’: It simply doesn’t exist. At best there is a polite convention that a journo won’t use it, but when you’ve got one of Rupert’s top henchmen slagging off at his successors and media outlets how could a ‘real’ journalist not use the comments?
In fact Cowley would probably have been the first to sack a journo for refusing to use such powerful material in a news story.
The journos I’ve interviewed for this blog tell me they hate the arrogance of someone who says “this is off the record” and assume you’ll obediently comply. If you want to take that risk at least give the courtesy of gaining their agreement BEFORE you shoot your mouth off.
And finally ‘verballed’: It’s not a media term. As a noun it’s a reference to police using fabricated confessions in Court. But as an adjective it means quoted verbatim – which is probably closer to the truth.
So how can you avoid a ‘Cowley’ moment?
Don’t say it if you can’t live with it in print.
Give the journalist irresistible and strategic grabs – all of which serve your game plan.
Remember journalists are not your friends. When someone is so deeply interested in what you have to say it’s tempting to overshare. Save that for your psychologist or buy a dog.
And I’ll leave you with a wonderful given quote to me by a journo friend which should appear on every interview briefing note you write:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” - Janet Malcolm