`Our chairman says ...': when corporate PR people make up quotes
San Francisco — Business reporters are often given ``quotes'' from corporate executives by public relations departments of major corporations. It is not always clear, however, if these quotations are actually statements made by the executive or the fabrications of the company's PR specialist. Following the disclosure by former White House spokesman Larry Speakes that, on at least two occasions, he made up quotations he had attributed to President Reagan, corporate communication departments are evaluating their own practices.
``It's not at all unusual in corporate America to encounter a situation where an executive has not expressed the language attributed to him in a press release,'' says Gene Endicott, press relations representative at the Hewlett-Packard Company. ``While comments are attributed to a CEO, the thoughts behind them are reflections of ideas from a number of different people in the company.''
A quotation is popularly defined as ``a direct statement said or written by an individual that reflects his views on a subject.'' Public relations specialists, on the other hand, maintain that just because a statement released to the press has quotation marks around it and is attributed to a chief executive officer doesn't necessarily mean he said it.
``We don't always have the opportunity to sit down with the CEO and interview him,'' Mr. Endicott says. ``From [conversations with other people in the company], we may get ideas for quotes that could be attributed to senior officers of the company.''
``It's common for PR departments to prepare material [for the CEO]. That's our job,'' says a Fortune 500 company's director of public relations, who asked not to be identified. ``A quote is really just our commentary on who's making news in the company.'' But he and other communications directors emphasized that such statements never go out without the approval of the official being quoted.
A quotation is therefore viewed as more a ``company statement'' that reflects the corporation's strategic point of view.
Communications specialists say it's done this way for a variety of reasons. The CEO may be out of town and not available for comment. In other cases, PR departments will see it as their role to spice up the occasionally dry style of an executive's words.
PR specialists were critical of Mr. Speakes's admission last month that he made up quotations and attributed them to the President.
``It was wrong for Speakes to put words in the President's mouth that were not his,'' says John Thom, manager of public relations at Litton Industries. ``We didn't vote for Speakes, we voted for Reagan.''
The problem for most of them, however, was not that Speakes fabricated ``quotes,'' but that he failed to get Mr. Reagan's approval. ``You run a great risk of putting your company in a difficult position if you don't seek the approval of the person,'' says Endicott.
``If we couldn't get approval, then we would tell the media, `Sorry, we are unable to respond,''' says Spencer Boise, vice-president of corporate affairs at Mattel Corporation. ``We would not make up a statement and attribute it to him.''
But PR specialists don't believe that all the rules for Speakes's role can be applied to the business world. For example, Speakes's function had to do with political imagemaking, while corporate PR people are concerned with strategic issues.
They dismiss the idea that quotations are developed with executive imagemaking in mind.
``We're not as conscious here of manufacturing a personal identity for the CEO,'' says Endicott. ``We're more concerned with the image of the company as a whole.''
Executive imagemaking isn't that common. With the exception of such flamboyant executives as Lee Iacocca of Chrysler Corporation and Michael Eisner of the Walt Disney Company, whose high-profile images help sell the product, most executives prefer to maintain a low profile.
PR people also don't believe imagemaking works in a corporate context. A CEO may look good on television, but bottom-line performance is ultimately more important. ``It doesn't matter what his image is, it's what his record is,'' a PR specialist says.
If a quotation is nothing more than the ``company's strategic point of view,'' derived from a variety of sources, why not just release the company's on a given matter as straight material? ``Quotes are the form and function of the media. That's the way the game is played,'' the specialist observed. ``Reporters want quotes because stories are livelier with lots of quotes.''
Is it naive for the business press to assume that an executive quotation is something the CEO actually said himself?
``The question is whether John Young [president of Hewlett-Packard] is thinking these things or did he actually sit down in a room and say this to somebody,'' says Endicott. ``To me, it's not a critical issue as long as the thought of the person is accurately reflected.''
That mirrors Speakes's statement in his book where he claimed it was appropriate to fabricate quotations on the grounds that he ``faithfully reflected the President's thinking.''