You see the phrase more and more in news stories involving business, government, or other large institution: “In a written statement, the company said….” It’s become commonplace. Few people talk to reporters anymore; instead, we receive their questions and provide a written statement.
There are reasons for this.
First is the control issue. It is believed that a written statement allows the organization more control over the story rather than someone being interviewed. People can make mistakes or use the wrong words; how a person answers can sometimes be misleading. A written statement, usually emailed or faxed to a reporter, will say exactly what the organization wants to say or, more importantly, what the organization wants to see published verbatim in the news story.
Many PR people play along with this. They call it “messaging the story,” with the result that the statement is filled with “key message points” that sound like they were assembled by a committee.
Second is the personal protection issue. PR people or spokespersons often prefer to provide a written statement because this protects them from the people they work for. This may be news to some, but management will inevitably place the blame for a garbled story or a misquote on the PR person. Unless the interview is taped (a rare occurrence), no one knows for sure. Even when management is misquoted, PR people will often get the blame.
Third is the corporate protection issue, and this one may have some validity. When a news story is about an issue, a crisis, a lawsuit or similar event, saying something publicly can harm the organization’s interests. Generally, however, the “we don’t comment on ongoing litigation” response is way overused; organizations will comment on ongoing litigation, for example, if they think it’s in their best interests.
All large organizations tend to rely on the written statement. If you want to see the practice in full flood, track the statements issued by political candidates, and watch how many “key message points” are packed into them.
What organizations usually don’t understand is how the form of a written statement communicates. It implies mistrust of the reporter, which isn’t the best way to build an ongoing relationship. It implies mistrust of the organization’s spokesperson, that he or she can’t get it right on their own. And it indirectly implies mistrust of the reader of the story – that people aren’t smart enough to be able to see through what may be going on.
As if you can’t tell, I don’t like written statements as responses to reporters’ questions. They are rarely justified in practice, but they are increasingly common in practice.
There’s no substitute for the time-honored practice of building a relationship with the reporter. Ragan.com recently had a good post on the subject, “5 ways PR pros can build relationships with reporters.” Developing a relationship is developing trust, something in short supply on both ends of a question.
It’s easy enough to try. Pick a fairly safe subject, something non-controversial. Instead of a written statement, talk with the reporter. Ask questions back. Suggest alternatives or additional information sources.
Just about anything’s better than the written statement crammed with key message points.
Photograph by Rachel Bell via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.