In all my years as a newspaper reporter, through the thousands of stories in which I quoted one or more individuals, I was constrained by this pesky requirement: the person had to have actually said something in order for me to include it inside the quotation marks.
Imagine that—and hold that unspectacular, elementary thought for a few moments.
Since shifting to public relations nearly a decade ago, I have retained just enough common journalistic sense to apply much the same principle when quoting clients in news releases and other communications.
Of course, with the benefit of collaborating on final wording, the quote is subject to some nips and tucks—the fewer, the better, frankly.
The reason I don’t like altering very much what a client says is the same reason why I have him or her say the comment out loud in the first place: people really dig authenticity—and they hate phony baloney.
(By the way, I just said those words as I was sitting here clanging away at my keyboard: “People really dig authenticity—and they hate phony baloney.”
I said it, and then I wrote it. Get it?
Whether it’s my point about authenticity versus phoniness, or something that you develop with your client, people will “get it”—and respect it—so much more when it is truly spoken rather than written by some PR flack.
One way to spot the language of “PR-ese” is when it seems to have been lifted from a dry brochure or dulled to death by an attorney or otherwise geared toward silent reading.
There really is no such thing as “silent reading,” anyway, because as everyone scans text with their eyes, they have an internal ear for the sound of those words. And—news flash!—this is especially true if you are trying to pawn it off as something that an individual actually has said.
All of which brings me to Paul George, the professional basketball player who made the insensitive and foolish comments on Twitter Sept. 11th about the Ray Rice domestic violence saga.
George was making a case for the reinstatement of Rice, a professional football player who has been banished from the NFL for knocking out his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in a casino elevator. Now Rice’s wife, Palmer is defending her husband and has argued that he should be able to resume his career.
Here’s how George got things rolling at 8:23 a.m. Thursday:
“I don’t condone hittin women or think it’s coo BUT if SHE ain’t trippin then I ain’t trippin.. Lets keep it movin lol let that man play!”
Sixteen minutes later came this Tweet:
“If you in a relationship and a woman hit you first and attacking YOU.. Then you obviously ain’t beatin HER. Homie made A bad choice! #StayUp”
Little more than 10 minutes later, at 8:51 a.m., came this follow-up from George:
Let me apologize to the women and to the VICTIMS of domestic violence people my intent was not to downplay the situation.
The first two Tweets were authentic. The third one? Let’s just say that if you believe George actually came up with that apology himself, I have some tough news to break to you about the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
And then there is this doozy, a statement issued later in the day and purported to be from George and released through his team, the Indiana Pacers:
“I want to apologize to all victims of domestic abuse for my insensitive tweets. They were obviously without proper understanding of the seriousness of the situation and I sincerely regret my poor choice of words.”
There’s no “coo” and there ain’t no trippin goin’ on, yo. What up, dawg?
In other words, the team-sanctioned statement is so obviously not something that George would say—at least, not the way he would say it. So it’s not credible in the least; it’s just thinly veiled damage-control.
Why didn’t someone within the Pacers organization try to elicit a comment from George’s lips?
Maybe he wasn’t really sorry for being insensitive—but only for the backlash that erupted in response to his ill-advised Tweets. Or it could be that they didn’t think that an “official” statement was allowed to be a living, breathing, genuine expression of remorse.
But something like this would have been so much better:
“Yo, my bad. Sorry to anyone who has been a victim of domestic abuse. That’s seriously wrong. Though I still think Ray Rice should get a second chance, my tweets were just dumb.”
No, I can’t claim to have spoken with George, but I bet the above statement is so much closer to capturing how he would truly speak. And if people think he would actually say it, they are much more apt to think he truly feels it.
The lesson: whether you are representing a professional athlete or a local business down the block, the key is to keep it real. And that starts with shaking free of the widespread PR mistake of thinking that controlled, “packaged” quotes made up by some play-it-safe publicist are anything more than white-noise rubbish.
And, yeah, you can quote me on that.