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Media Training: How to Avoid Being Misquoted

I often begin my media training sessions by asking members of the audience to raise their hands if they've been interviewed by the media. Almost all of the hands in the room go up. I then ask them to keep their hands up if they've ever been misquoted. Not only do virtually all of the hands remain up, but the usually nod their heads vigorously, followed by laughter.

Being misquoted is one of the biggest plagues for any spokesperson. It can cause deep consternation for the interviewee, who has to sheepishly explain to her colleagues that she didn't actually say what the reporter claimed she did.

A former colleague from California, a well-respected scientist, recently e-mailed me the following note about an article that appeared in one of the largest newspapers in the United States.

"Don't know if you saw it, but the paper did a write up of our work last week. The body of the story was fine, but the writer attributed some quotes to me that never came from my mouth and had some horrific technical errors. So what do you do?"

There's good news and bad news here. The bad news is that you can never guarantee that the reporter will get your quote perfectly right. Journalists, being subject to human flaws, will occasionally get it wrong. But the good news is that you have a lot more control than you think - and can exponentially increase the odds that the reporter will get your story right.

Here are four ways to reduce your risk of being misquoted:

1) Give Them the Facts: Let's face it - the more you say, the more you stray. A lot of spokespeople get misquoted because they say too much. Instead of spending most of your interviews providing reporters with endless background, write a one or two page fact sheet which lays out the basic facts for them.

Providing a reporter with a written fact sheet accomplishes several things. Most importantly, it allows you to tell the reporter what the story means during your interview instead of telling him what the story is. By doing so, your quote will contain your interpretation of the facts instead of raw facts devoid of context.

It also saves you time, since you don't have to explain the basics of the story to each reporter who calls. Finally, because you've said less and repeatedly emphasized the meaning of the story, you've given the reporter more opportunities not only to get your quote right, but to make it meaningful.

2) Click, Clack, Repeat: If you're giving a phone interview, listen for the sound of typing on the other end - you'll hear it when you say something that intrigues the reporter. That's your cue to slow down, make sure the reporter has time to capture every word, and repeat what you've just said.

The same is true during an in-person interview when a reporter is scribbling notes in a notepad. When you see her scribbling, slow down and repeat!

3) Click, Clack, Send: Some reporters allow their interviewees to respond to questions over e-mail. If you're fortunate enough to have a reporter agree to an e-mail interview, you will have total control of your words. Just be sure to have a colleague check your response for unintended meanings and phrases that can be taken out of context.

Although you can use e-mail interviews occasionally, you probably shouldn't rely on them all the time. Your goal is to build long-term relationships with reporters - and that's something better accomplished over the phone or in person.

4) Now, What Did I Just Say: Although reporters are under no obligation to read your quotes back to you, many of them will. If you don't like the way you said something, they may not change it - but if you misspoke and said something factually inaccurate, they will. You should ask them to read back your quotes during the interview, not afterwards.

You can also offer to help the reporter fact check the finished story. If you don't like the way the reporter framed the story, she will be unlikely to change it. But if she has objectively gotten a fact wrong, she will almost always correct it.

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.

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