A great deal of effort goes into getting people quoted in major media. Journalists get bombarded with information and pitches. Comms people spend endless time on message development, on media training, on cultivating media relationships for spokespeople, and on news hijacking.
I wondered whether it would be possible to analyse what types of quotes get used – in other words to categorise them in some useful way.
I’m specifically interested in third party experts – People whose quotes pepper stories in major media, but who don’t have to be cited by the reporter. When it comes to third parties, the journalist often has a wide choice, and in some cases only two or three of a dozen people the reporter has spoken to get quoted.
We also know that in most cases in major media, the quotes of third party experts used arise from conversations with a reporter. A minority may come from emails or other direct messaging. They do not come, to any considerable extent, from press releases. What the expert actually says matters. Whereas the principal in a story, such as the CEO of an acquiring company, may more likely have their press release quote widely used.
In order to think about a taxonomy of quotes, I researched two months worth of The Economist from January and February this year. The business and finance sections contained 30 third party quotes. Looking at them helped me sort in my mind a simple taxonomy that I think will work. My suggested primary categories are:
In addition, I looked at two sub-categories cutting across these: does the quote contain statistics or data, and does it contain an analogy? In fact, only 2 quotes contained data (which surprised me) and 6 contained an analogy.
My taxonomy may trigger some questions. I am not trying to get into semantics but into defining sensible categories, even if somewhat arbitrary, that are useful for media relations. Here are some responses to questions:
Can’t “description” contain “analysis”? Yes, there is overlap, but for me the main attribute of “analysis” is words like “because” or “due to”, which are either in the quote or implied. Whereas description lacks an emphasis on causation.
Shouldn’t “point of view” be a category? Well, a point of view is in the eye of the beholder. Description, analysis and prediction can all involve a point of view. I feel my categories are more neutral.
Similarly, I feel that “assertion” and “fact” – are somewhat subjective terms.
No doubt this could be done better with AI and machine learning, and I want to look into that more. We’ve seen considerable reporting on use of AI to analyse CEO statements as well as press coverage to drive investment decisions.
How quotes emerge
What is quoted is generally the summation of a discussion – and often a prior relationship. You could argue that delivering ‘description’ quotes of the necessary building blocks for ‘analysis’ that then gets quoted. Certainly a spokesperson who was so robotically prepped that they could only convey a few “analysis” sentences would fail to convince. But my contention would be that an expert who was conscious whether they were mainly delivering description/analysis/prediction/colour would have a better chance of improving their hit rate.
Journalists can want a very specific kind of quote to fit the story. Occasionally quotes are heavily negotiated between expert and journalist, though less so with third parties. Some quotes are throw away lines, and in some cases journalists would be hard put to recall why they quoted someone but not someone else.
It’s also true that your corporate affiliations, whether a major consultancy or a startup or a charity, can affect whether your quote is used.
I now want to look at some other publications, such the FT and the WSJ, to build a broader dataset of this analysis. I feel instinctively that prediction is more common that the Economist sample suggests. Some publications are certainly even more into analogy than the Economistm with UK national papers often loving dramatic comparisons with sports or war.
In an ideal (or dystopian?) world, perhaps information on what kinds of quotes a publication uses would become widely available. You could even imagine taking this to the reporter level, so that different approaches could be taken with different reporters of a publication. AI certainly makes this possible, with language in political debates and its impact on audience perception commonly analysed. It’s a matter of proportion and potential gain.
Finally then, what does this research tell us so far? On the basis of the Economist sample:
“Analysis” gets you quoted more
Pure “description” won’t get you quoted
Don’t pepper your discussion with rhetorical questions
Analogy or comparison is often useful, statistics perhaps not as much
I am keen for all feedback from colleagues, clients and others as to whether this approach stacks up and is potentially of some use.
The experts quoted in my research exercise work for companies including Nestle, L'Oreal, Bain, Lengow, Parklu, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, New Street, LightShed, Dish, Gartner, Spotify, APG, CMS, Macquarie, IFM, Amber, Meridiam, Blackrock, AMP, Goldman Sachs. These were all quotes where they were third parties to the story in question.
Andrew Marshall is the vice chairman of Cognito