Nearly every journalist starting out on their career will, at some point, fall victim to the encouragement of a friendly PR man offering to ‘check’ their copy to ‘avoid any embarrassment’. I know I did. I duly faxed (it was the 80s) my copy only to receive a script that bore no resemblance to my article but instead read like marketing bumph. I then had to face my editor and explain that the pages he had already signed off had now to be changed to incorporate this new advertorial style copy. Needless to say, words were exchanged.
So I am not surprised that the nation’s ‘darling’ Clare Balding may have amended an interview in Saga magazine to include gushing phrases about the book she was plugging, as the journalist commissioned to write the article now claims. Balding denies the allegation, leaving Saga’s editor to announce it was she who had ‘niced’ up the article.
Either way, the trend for PRs to ask for copy approval is growing. It is deeply irritating. I have no objection to reading back quotes in context to assure a nervous interviewee that I have not completely missed the point or misinterpreted their views. But I do object to people asking for a ‘peek’ just to be assured that their client is represented fairly in the article. What is fair? It is a subjective assessment, and I can virtually guarantee that your view and mine will differ.
Last month I received a ‘request’ from a PR that I write another article in which their client could feature because, in the previous one, they hadn’t featured enough and they were now upset. Are you kidding me? Perhaps I should let you all write the content, and I’ll just publish it! Oh wait: you keep offering to do that too. (My favourite unsolicited contribution was a case study from an agency about how it worked with a client: Mills & Boon would have been less gushing. Needless to say, we didn’t live happily ever after.)
Occasionally I do fall for an old sob story. ‘My boss will sack me.’ ‘This is so politically sensitive.’ ‘I’ve just come back from sick leave.’ I’ve heard them all. You can identify the sensible old hands: they return the copy with, at most, a couple of minor amends, even if they may not like the tone of the piece. Sadly, they are in the minority. The copy will often be returned with any vaguely negative comment removed. Any mention of past transgressions – often the initial reason for the piece – will also be wiped out, usually accompanied by a condescending ‘do we really need to go over this again?’ style comment. And direct, sensible sounding quotes – the sort of things that normal people say – are replaced by bland, neutral statements that would not look out of place in an Enid Blyton novel.
Then – to cap it all – these obsessives often sign off with a variant of the phrase: ‘I await sight of amended copy for final sign off’. Pah! You’ll have a long wait. Fool me once...
For an industry concerned about fake news, the PR world is quite adept at creating it. Yes. I do know that not all journalists are equal, and that mistakes in copy – particularly print – can be damaging. But if earned media is recognised as the most valuable sort of media, why manipulate it to read as if it’s paid for?