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$&#%! I’ve been misquoted!

You’re looking forward to the morning email blast from a top news outlet because you know you will be quoted in a piece. You may read it carefully, or you may give it the “Washington read,” which is drilling directly down to what they said about you.

Either way, you find a quote that you believe is not what you said, or intended to say. Now what?

He's mainly angry because he has no nose.

Take a breath. Take another. Now take 10 more. This is the most important step.

Whether to challenge a quote as printed is a delicate matter. It depends on the following:

  • Was the quote nuanced in some way that you did not intend, or was it flat out wrong? This is the difference between “there is discussion in some circles that the world may not be round” and “it is incontrovertible that the world is flat.”

  • Your ego is damaged, to be sure. But is your livelihood and reputation damaged? Was the public misinformed? Take a moment to consider the gravity of the error.

  • Is the quote on the front page? In the top 50% of the story? Most readers are notorious skimmers. Unless readers are very interested in a topic, it’s the New York Times and millions will read it, or your mother is Googling you and will yell at you, the quote may not be widely read. No harm, no foul.

  • Without preamble, ask a trusted colleague to read the piece and then ask, “what do you think of my quote?” If they say it sounds very odd, or they can’t fathom you saying it, you have grounds to discuss the matter with the reporter.

  • Consider your relationship with the reporter and the outlet. Is this a rookie reporter who may become a valued journalistic partner? Is this something you can address privately, with the reporter, or does it demand a retraction and a conversation with an editor or ombudsperson? Think carefully before escalating what could be handled in an easier manner, preserving the budding relationship.

  • With humility and honesty, consider how your conduct in the interview may have contributed to the misquote. Were you rambling, speaking in long sentences without taking a breath, and veering off on “interesting” tangents in a 30-minute conversation? This creates a minefield for misquotes. If you stick to your message, and repeat it succinctly at the close of your conversation, you have a far better chance of being quoted accurately.

  • No reporter is perfect. Before laptops were allowed in federal court, I covered a lengthy high-stakes trial of a federal judge accused of corruption. The press corps sat together, and on breaks we often hurriedly compared our hand-written version of testimony with the god of our press pack, a reporter from the AP with decades of experience. I was shocked to see how much our “direct quotes” of very important lines of testimony varied. Quotes are like eye-witness identifications. People think they get them right far more often than the actually do, through no fault or ill will.

Lastly, don’t blame an entire profession for one experience. Just because it happened once doesn’t mean reporters are evil, or that it will happen again. Consider seeking media coaching so you can do your part in ensuring a repeat is unlikely.

Susan Kostal is a legal marketing and media coach specializing in the Bay Area legal industry. Find more great content on Twitter @skostal.

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