Messaging: How to minimise media misquotes

A former newsroom colleague (whose identity shall remain secret) used to get so frustrated with his interview subjects’ long-winded responses that he would take out his notepad, write down what they were trying to say and tell them, “Here, just say that.”

Shockingly, many did.

They were lucky. Time-pressed journalists trying to distil a spokesperson’s position are more likely to edit down a short ‘grab’ that can strip away meaning and context, often with distorted results. Qualifying phrases stand little chance. Nuance is a no-go zone.

The New York Times still carries on its masthead, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” The flip side is, if it doesn’t fit it won’t get printed.

Unfair? Possibly so, and this may be a factor in the erosion of trust in news media.

However, it’s an academic argument if you have already ceded control of your message. Spokespeople and communications professionals need to come to any conversation prepared with a tightly-framed point of view, ready to express it with clarity and colour.

Editing – the art of honing and refining language – involves ruthlessly cutting words.

Winston Churchill – who knew a good sound bite when he heard one – once observed, “Broadly speaking, the short words are best, and the old words best of all.”

Edit first, or risk being edited out of context – or even out of the conversation altogether.

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