Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Attributed quotes

An interesting piece from The Inner Ring today:

Mark Cavendish has signed a deal for sports agents the Wasserman Group to represent him and to mark the moment there’s been a press release to announce the deal. Here’s an excerpt:

“I’m really excited to be joining Wasserman,” said the sprint cyclist who currently rides for HTC-Highroad. “Their client list is the best in the world and being part of a company who has a history of successfully managing top athletes can only be beneficial in what is a big few years for me. It’s extremely important to have the right management behind me now to allow me to focus all of my energies into riding my bike as fast as I can.“

Only he probably never said these words. Welcome to the phenomenon known as the “attributed quote”. It’s widespread. The use of the attributed quote is systemic, a worldwide phenomenon that goes well beyond sport and into news, politics and more.

In cycling it’s common, for example the announcement of a sponsorship deal or when a rider changes team there’s normally a press release to announce news of the signing. It will set out the facts and then a series of quotes from those involved in the team, usually the team manager and the rider in question. We’ll see quotes like: “Rider so-and-so is great fit for the team and we’re looking forward to working with him” and then come some words from the rider, usually “I’m delighted to have signed for Team XYZ and can’t wait to start planning for 2012 with them“.

But very few teams have held press conferences to announce the signings. No rider stood at a lectern and delivered a speech or spoke into a microphone. Indeed there’s not even a telephone conference call. These words are not transcripts, they have been invented. As such they are a lie. They mark an interesting moment of collusion between journalist and the public relations industry. After all, flip things around and any journalist who invents quotes can lose their job; yet publishing fake quotes is seemingly if they are supplied by email because someone else has done the creative bit.

I can understand the convenience of the ready-made quotes. Just because the words are not said out loud in public and recorded doesn’t mean the sentiment isn’t there, the supplied words fill the demand to add a personal touch to the news, they help frame the story behind the press release.

But if I can understand why the fictional quotes exist, my real annoyance is the way the quotes read. Read the quote by Cavendish at the top of the page and ask yourself if he actually talks like that, even if he gave a set-piece speech to open a press conference. Probably not.

All too often they seem to be written by a robot and employ eerily similar quotes. You can spot the fakery from a mile thanks to gushing prose that reads in a way that nobody talks, the text makes out that there cannot be any alternative but at the same time the cheery prose could have been penned to mark any number of circumstances. Obviously nobody’s going to stand up and say “I joined Team XYZ because they offered me a three year deal on a bigger salary than the other lot“, this sentiment is usually translated into something like “the team have offered me full support and share my long term vision“.


This isn’t about Cavendish as press releases like the one above land in email inboxes every minute of the day. These can be important methods to communicate news but all too often they contain saccharine quotes from the individuals named that simply don’t read like the words you would expect the person to say.

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