Why You Didn't Get Quoted


A few months ago I met with an executive from a large bank who was frustrated that his boss’ repeated media interviews almost always had the same disappointing outcome.

“Is he wandering off message?” I asked. “Giving up company secrets?”

No, my pal responded. The problem was, he rarely made the story at all.

Ah. Unquotable Executive Syndrome.  It’s a widespread malady, usually afflicting higher level executives.

Unquotable Executive Syndrome is the result of a failure to articulate messages in a way that resonates with the reporter and in turn the reporter’s audience.  There are three specific mistakes executives make that almost guarantee they’ll be cut from the story. Here they are, along with some corrective measures to prevent Unquotable Executive Syndrome in the first place.

Mistake #1: Talking too much. Ironically, the more anxious an executive is about an interview, the more likely he or she is to blather on once it starts. Sometimes the reporter only gets in one question before the exec launches into a filibuster, running out the clock. By filling the silence, interview subjects might feel they’re in control. But if the reporter doesn’t get what he or she needs, everyone’s time is wasted.

Remember the interview is a conversation, not a monologue. Responses should be complete, but not exhaustive. Shoot for 30 seconds for a video response, 45 seconds for radio and 60 for print. Live audience answers should be about 60 to 90 seconds. And all responses should always include a message.

Mistake #2: Not answering questions. The premise of any interview is that one person asks questions and the other answers, or at least addresses them, even if they’re not pleasant.

While it’s acceptable (actually imperative) to bridge or transition from an answer to a message, it’s not OK to ignore the questions and spew message after message with disregard for the interviewer. Interview subjects who do will at best be cut from the story. At worst, they’ll find their entire evasive interview uploaded to YouTube for public ridicule.

Mistake #3: Being boring. By far this is the most pervasive cause of Unquotable Executive Syndrome. It’s typically observed in executives who are so afraid of straying from their messages that they come off like robots programmed only to recite industry jargon and clichés.

Reporters need sources who bring to life the key points of stories with interesting, memorable language. They don’t want forgettable rehashes of predictable positions. Of course, “getting real” on the fly is more than a little dangerous. The best course is to prepare ahead of time with three or four messages and a number of “message enhancers” for each. Message enhancers include colorful language, short stories, personal examples, quippy one-liners, meaningful stats, contemporary references or pithy analogies.

Executives who load their interviews with interesting message enhancers will almost certainly guarantee a spot in the story—and likely more stories in the future. Even better, they’ll be quoted on message and in ways that resonate with the reporter’s audience. And after all, isn’t that the whole reason for investing time and money in the interview in the first place?