Anodyne Anonymity

Beware officials who hide behind the veil—and those who let them

By Cory Doctorow - Share this article

When we think of journalists' anonymous sources, we think of the proverbial whistleblower. Company insiders, or civil servants, ready to violate their nondisclosure agreements to expose some wrongdoing, or perhaps to settle some score. On the other, sleazier, end of the scale, we might think of tipsters: a cash-strapped waiter at a restaurant who sells the story of a celebrity food-fight to a tabloid, a blabby nurse at a plastic surgery clinic who spills the beans on some captain of industry's chin-augmentation.

But the most commonly cited anonymous sources in the news today are the official, on-the-record spokespeople for corporations. And the anonymous speech that is protected by the journalists who quote them is the most bland, anodyne stuff you can imagine.

My first run-in with this was back in 1996 or 1997, when I wrote my first feature for Wired magazine, about a “dumpster diver” who harvested trash from high-tech companies' skips and resold it. After watching him make several thousand dollars out of a skip belonging to Acer America, I called them up and spoke to their head of security, who was on the line with a minder from Acer's PR company. He said something bland and reassuring about how it would cost more to sell this stuff themselves than they'd earn on it. I asked why they didn't give it to schools, and the PR minder said, “It’s something we’ll have to look into.”

I quoted both of them in the article and was shocked when Wired's fact-checker phoned me before it went to press to tell me that the PR person denied having said anything. I had her on tape and I stuck to my guns, and those perfectly innocuous words went into the article, much to her evident (and inexplicable) consternation.

PR people, both in-house and outside contractors, have adopted a gospel that holds that they themselves should never appear in an article. When I asked around about this practice, PR people defended it, saying that their success would be judged by the extent to which they were absent from the story. It's as though the odd doctrine that companies are people means that companies can't admit that they are made up of people. When a PR person says something innocuous, he is speaking ex cathedra, voice of the company embodied, which has possessed him and speaks through him, without interpretation or engagement by the person himself. He is the company's living embodiment, without name or identity.

This is a phenomenon that I run into again and again. Last year, I dug into the Times's paywall numbers, spending a week talking off and on with the senior spokesperson for the paper. At the end of our conversation, she revealed that she had only been speaking to me with the understanding that I not name her in the article. Surprised that the official, designated spokesperson for The Times would expect to remain unnamed in print, I asked if anything she'd told me was incriminating to her. No, she said, all the facts she'd relayed were “in the public domain,” and she had not violated any confidences in relaying them to me. Her job was to tell me these facts, and her job was to make sure that no one knew who had told me these facts.

More recently, I was chasing up a story BBC's insistence that Ofcom hold its report on adding DRM to high-definition digital TV in confidence. No one at the BBC's press relations office would return my phone messages, and when a press officer there responded in writing, he or she refused to disclose his or her identity. I don't even know if the emails I received came from one person or several people.

PR people are seemingly incapable of understanding why anyone would object to this. After I posted about a researcher's conclusion that T-Mobile UK was fiddling with the packets in its data network in a way that prevented secure connections, I was contacted by a representative from Nelson Bostock Communications. This person wrote on T-Mobile's behalf to ask for a phone call. Given the technical nature of the matter, I emailed back that I'd prefer a written exchange, and said that I would only communicate on the condition that it was all on the record, from a named person. The PR person replied with a fairly spin-laden answer and noted “Statement to be attributed to a T-Mobile spokesperson.” Either this person had poor reading comprehension or just couldn’t believe that someone would ask for a named person would have statements attributed to them. Indeed, when I asked about this, I got another reply with the same attribution instruction. I replied that we had nothing to say if I couldn't quote someone by name, and never heard back.

Then, when I got a lead on a story about a spot of corporate misbehavior. I asked the company for an on-the-record statement. I got one, which made it all seem rather a tempest in a teapot. Just as I was deciding not to write about this after all, I got an email from an in-house PR person at the company asking if she could talk to me “on background” about this. I replied that, as I’d stated, I was only interested in talking to named, on-the-record people, unless she or he was planning on telling me something that would get her or him fired or disciplined. That is, if she or he was going to relay official company statements in her or his capacity as a company spokesperson, I expected to be able to attribute them to her or him. She or he replied that she or he could talk if I could attribute this to “someone close to the company.” I reiterated that this wasn't something I'd do for official statements, and she or he thanked me politely and suggested some websites I could look to for clarity.

I went back to the BBC and asked if someone in the press department could speak to me, on the record, as a named person, about why no one there would speak as a named person on the record. A person who asked not to be named said, “it’s absolutely standard practice to request a quote is attributed to a spokesperson for an organisation rather than in an individual’s name. This is because it demonstrates the statement is being officially given on behalf of the organisation, as opposed to by an individual employee offering what might be their private opinion. This approach is routinely adopted by most communications teams, be they broadcasters, public sector organisations or private companies.”

When I asked if I could attribute this to the person who'd replied to my email, she or he said, “I’ve clearly articulated the BBC’s position to you, and in line with this I’ve asked that you attribute it to a BBC spokesperson.” Of course, I’d started the conversation by asking that a named person go on-the-record, but again, this seems to be an impossible request in the world of PR.

I asked whether the BBC's newsgathering guidelines had anything to say on the subject, and the anonymous person pointed me to the BBC Editorial Guidelines on Anonymity. As a set of principles for protecting the identities of whistleblowers, dissidents, and witnesses and victims of crimes, these are without flaw.

But I can't understand why they'd apply to corporate spokespeople.

News, as we all know, is governed by the Ws: Who, what, where, when and why. When you are writing up a factual, detailed account of an event, who matters every bit as much as what and the rest of it. The identity of a person who makes a statement is newsworthy and relevant. Without this fact, we are deprived of a key metric for determining credibility: identity. If a PR person says something at company “A” that turns out to have been a knowing lie, then we should be very skeptical of everything she says for companies B, C and on, throughout her employment history, unto Z.

Many people in PR start out in journalism school. When I taught at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, the students intending to work in PR went to the same classes as the students who intended to become working journalists. They heard all about the importance of establishing the key facts when reporting on a story. The shock on display when a journalist asks for statements to be attributed to human beings, rather than the companies that employ them, is unconvincing and unbecoming.

Let's be clear here. I'm not talking about sticking a pad under someone’s nose at the site of an industrial accident and saying, “You work here then? Can you tell me what happened? What’s your name?” and getting that poor shocked person fired.

I'm talking about attending the press conference and asking the official spokesperson, making prepared statements on behalf of the company, what his name is. This is relevant. The reason that human beings deliver these statements is so that we'll believe them and report on them, because statements attached to people are more convincing than anonymous, unsigned missives on the company website. If we are going to give statements credence because they originate with humans, then we should know who those humans are.

Read more:
A fatal lack of accountability, by Heather Brooke
Screenwipe on anonymous sourcing
Everything tagged Journalism at Boing Boing

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

38 Responses to “Anodyne Anonymity”

  1. Nutrition Industry says:

    What came to mind here was that a named spokesperson could be forced to take the fall over a press release that the company approved but later regretted  (i.e. the official statement is made, evidence is uncovered that the official statement is a lie, then the company blames the messenger).  As long as spokespeople are faceless, then perhaps they are blameless too (both externally and internally)?

  2. Pag says:

    I’m starting to believe that large bureaucracies (corporations or governments) are in fact a new form of artificial life. Where we humans are made of individual living cells, corporations are made of individual living persons. Just like individual cells don’t understand why a person does the actions it does, individuals in corporations don’t understand why the bureaucracy does what it does. It’s all the result of processes that are bigger and more convoluted than any person can understand, even CEOs or VPs who are supposedly in charge.

    This article is in line with this new reality: corporations behave as independent lifeforms. Employees are selected to serve an anonymous function in the growing organism. In a way, naming the individual PR drone would be like quoting “the mouth of Cory Doctorow” instead of the person. The spokesperson doesn’t relay his own point of view, or that of any individual, but the point of view of the bureaucracy as a whole.

    In a sense, large corporations are the first form of artificial intelligence.

  3. ZikZak says:

    When I get in front of a news camera and make a statement about something, my name is associated with whatever I said.

    This means that I need to be careful about what I say, and make sure it’s something that I’m personally willing to stand behind.  It would be foolish, for example, for me to just accept a script that someone else handed me and read that.

    “Corporate anonymity” allows that to happen.  Spokespeople are expected to make statements without any critical thought, to assert things without any idea whether they’re true.  And they’re willing to do this because their name and identity will never be connected to their statements.  They have no accountability.

  4. Well… maybe the solution is to report any such anonymous statement the same way you’d report an actual, not completely credible, anonymous off-the-record statement?
    If the company reads “official” statements in the form of “a person who did not want to be named claimed that…” — how’s that for PR?

  5. Robert Weaver says:

    Spot-on re the motivation of preventing punters being able to assess the credibility of the statement by knowing its source – and this is even more true when the source won’t even cop to being a nameless flack. This also works longterm – get publicly associated on the record with something that turns out to be a lie and no-one’s going to believe the next thing you say.

    But what reason do journos have to roll over for this nonsense, as they habitually do? Obviously there’s the desire to maintain a relationship with the source – purely for content provision, as you can’t rely on self serving anonymous sources to provide accurate information – and if you refused to keep them anonymous they’d just go to someone else. But protecting the anonymity of the source also protects the news values of the story. “Anonymous officials confirm Cheney’s claims of AlQaeda-Hussein link” is a story. “Guys from Dick Cheney’s office confirm Cheney’s claims” is not. “Backbench discontent brewing, claims party source” is a news story. “Leadership aspirant cooks up story with tame journo over lunch to destabilise current leader” is not. Weirdly, journos won’t only refuse to break the kayfabe over their own sources, they won’t do it over other journos’ sources either, even when that would legitimately be news, in that it would actually be informative.  

  6. Edit: This was meant as a reply to @ZikZak
    I agree to a point.
    Only, the collective mind of a company is so much more incoherent than that of a real person that in this context you couldn’t really take anything serious that “a company” says, because the next statement could flatly contradict the first one and it’d be nobody’s fault.
    … actually yes, that does happen. It also happens every time I try to speak to someone at my ISP. But it’s not a feature, it’s a bug.

  7. atimoshenko says:

    Seems to me as if they are playing the long game. If you occasionally want to put out crap, disinformation, and smears that can only be put out anonymously, such crap would look a lot more sensible and trustworthy if all the normal, anodyne statements were put out anonymously as well. If 99% of statements had names to them, the 1% that did not would stick out like a sore thumb.

  8. Colin says:

    Maybe they’re thinking of their jobs?  Face it, “public relations” now means “higher-up excrement shield”. And if that prepared statement was personally attributed to me, why, it would be my neck on the line.

    • mrpotato says:

      Hi Colin. PR was originally a corporate function covered by lawyers. It has always been an defence mechanism.

  9. bkad says:

    Ok, a slightly different opinion: I think attributing statements by people in positions of authority IS different than attributing statements by PR officials. I think if you are in a position of authority, you should be willing able to go on the record, because you are in a position to be aware of  and to influence the situation you are reporting. But for PR people it’s different.  It is true that a PR person (not unlike a lawyer) is not advocating for their own position; they are advocating for their clients position, a client who is paying them to say and do what they say and do. PR people do not necessarily have access to the truth (‘garbage in, garbage out’) and certainly don’t have management authority. And though one might expect a PR person not to knowingly lie, I don’t think it is reasonable to hold individual PR people accountable for transmitting information on the company’s behalf, any more than it is reasonable to hold a lawyer accountable for the behavior or statements of his or her client.

     I think since the editors of boing-boing are themselves writers, journalists, and creators,  they are used to the idea of having voices of their own and cultivating those as things of value.  Perhaps even in service to a publisher, they are individual actors in a way that employees of large organizations are not. We’re interchangeable parts, to an extent. That’s our job. As an engineer, I’m responsible for synthesizing solutions to specifications I am given. I’m senior enough to have some idea where those specifications come from and can critique whether they are good for our customers, but I’m not ultimately responsible for the specs or the other parts of the system or whether and how the products are made or sold (even if you consider my power to work or not work, I don’t have access to the information). And if someone can tell I designed one part of the system rather than some other engineer, it would only because I am really good, or really bad. If we aren’t interchangeable, we’re doing something wrong, because the company and the product will last a lot longer than I will be in this position, and my work needs to be understood/reproduced/managed by others. I imagine PR is similar to a respect. They take the information they’re given and present it in a positive light. They must ensure the company has a consistent public ‘face’  and ‘voice’ that outlives any one employee. How they could be accountable for unknowingly passing on incorrect information is beyond me.   And I agree that who they are should not matter.

    • Cory Doctorow says:

      “But for PR people it’s different.  It is true that a PR person (not unlike a lawyer) is not advocating for their own position; they are advocating for their clients position, a client who is paying them to say and do what they say and do.”

      Lawyers aren’t anonymous when they act on their clients’ behalf.

  10. Jeff says:

    In my fantasy universe, at a magic moment on an appointed day, all reporters would stop accepting this behavior. Then from that day on, if a company wanted its voice heard, it would have that voice named. It would have to be all reporters at once, to prevent any one reporter from being blacklisted by refusing to keep PR people anonymous.

    Absence an all-at-once cutover, it is up to culture hackers to find a third way, where something makes it easier to do the right thing than not, and then the right thing starts taking over from the wrong thing.

    What’s the hack here? And how to make it self-propagating, like the GPL?


    • mrpotato says:

      Jeff, good news, you appear to be living in a fantasy universe. Journalists take the piss out of PR people all the time. Read any business section of a newspaper and the diary column features regaulr fuck ups and obstructions by PR people. Hardly the Third Reich.

  11. mrpotato says:

    I have been doing this job (PR) for nearly 20 years. At best PR people only serve as a bridge between the media and the source – be them corporations, governments, NGO’s. Plenty of good has come out of having professional communicators knocking around the corridors getting organisations to open up a bit more and become more transparent.

    Sadly – not all of us can work for amazing companies producing cool products which excite and inspire the media. Speaking for most PR people, we are usually helping boring companies facilitate basic communications with audiences. Most of the time journalists are happy someone is keeping lines of communcation open, but they are not entirely happy to be barraged with incessant crap, pitches and low rent newsflow. There is too high an expectation of what PR people do. In fact most of us are pretty zzzzzzzz about being percived as “cock blocking” corporate soliders.

    The truth is – we are there to make it easier, and while you may say we probably fail most of the time – I whole heartedly believe there is more contact now between journalists and corporates then ever before.

    So what happens when you ask for an interview?

    If it is a friendly, collaborative approach and it is hooking up a simple interview with a widget inventor, 10 times out of 10 there is no bother at all. Job done. Post.

    But when a journalist seeks comment about something contentious – there is a risk attached – so the opportunity is usually kicked up the corporate tree until someone (usually the CEO) decides whether they themselves want to be quoted or whether it is something more worthy of a lower minion, or not at all. (i.e. it is difficult/potentially embarrassing/damaging).

    We then get in a situation where the PR person – who is keen to keep a positive relationship with the journalist offers to run a background
    briefing. We think this is more useful than slamming the door shut on the opportunity.

    PR people are seldom quoted for a myriad of reasons. You have listed most above using common sense and your own experiences. Mainly this is all about risk and control of the message. Also it is because most journalists would rather we didn’t exist – it makes them look lazy to quote a PR person.

    Let’s face it – if a Corporate says anything interesting is will probably end up offending someone/ something. This creates a risk aversion. Nothing gets you fired quicker than a mis quote in a national newspaper.

    These are hostile times for Corporations. I would not expect many to be changing tack on how they approach media interviews.

  12. I have neither the journalism nor the PR experience to remark credibly and improvingly upon this discussion. But I do have a relevant xkcd link:

    Yours sincerely,
    A person quite close to me.

  13. Chris Owen says:

    I think this shows a distinct naivety about basics of the PR role itself to be honest – we PRs are conduits not mouthpieces in themselves, and so should not be held to account for doing our job and not acting as spokespeople. we’re not the product specialists, C suite executives, nor technical developers whose insights we convey, and while PR plays a crucial role in strategy and brand, it’s not recognised (certainly in the UK) as being the department the business community want the insight from.

  14. Adam Banks says:

    I don’t see the point in naming someone who just delivers an official company line that they themselves may not even have written. If anything it clouds the issue. What if it turns out to be false? I’d like the company to be held responsible, not the hapless individual.

    Of course, there may be a few PR monsters who get away with making up crap off their own bat knowing they’re protected by anonymity, and being named might make them more accountable; but that’s surely an edge case. You’d be protecting companies from rogue employees more than protecting your readers from being misled.

    On the other hand, using a quote from a PR and misleadingly attributing it to “someone close to the company”, or similar, is bad journalistic practice and I can’t see any excuse for it.

    • Brent Bucci says:

      I’d actually prefer it if more reporters used my name. I hate reading “a source close to the company”, which is the term that most reporters use. 

      • penguinchris says:

        “A source close to the company” sounds shady and can very easily give the whole thing a negative connotation. That’s (presumably) why journalists use it. 

        And that’s the whole point of Cory’s article here. The forced anonymity for no reason that matters to anyone outside the company makes corporations look even more shady/slimy than they already are.

        I agree with some of the other comments in that it shouldn’t always be critical to publish a name. But the ideal situation – for the companies, the PR people themselves, and the public – is something in the middle. Leaning more towards always having a name.

        It’s an interesting situation – something we see all the time from corporations. The people at the corporation don’t realize that their actions will be perceived as negative by the public. In other words, the corporation has taken on a life of its own, as someone up thread said. Problem is, corporations aren’t people and can’t understand how people will perceive them. There’s an amazing cognitive dissonance effect at most corporations.

  15. digi_owl says:

    And so the sociopaths go unmasked.

    Btw, Hoover’s FBI comes to mind while reading this. He was the public face for the organization while the rest was faceless, nameless g-men.

  16. liquidstar says:

     I ve often thought that there s an internal contradiction to having an attributable name for a PR source;  which is that the “client” is the one the “public” is expecting to make the statement,  not the company, but the CEO or president etc.  If the PR person is named they are speaking for the company;  and in the public domain that means they are now perceived as the leader in the hierarchy.  This causes an implied loss of face for the actual leader.

  17. Brent Bucci says:

    As a PR Representative for several major technology corporations, I applaud any efforts to bring accountability and transparency to the role that we play in representing our brands. Transparency brings accountability, but the fact is, especially within the technology industry, PR representatives are often experts in our given field, and deserve to receive the same scrutiny as the spokespeople that we represent. 

    The major hurdle that all PR agents face is the fact that we are not given second chances in our field: in fact, whenever a company has a crisis, time and time again it is the PR Agency or individual agent that takes the fall for it. Job security often takes priority, and often, agents at major agencies are afraid of “rocking the boat”, especially within the agency model.

    -Brent Bucci, PR Executive

  18. B says:

    Very few articles explicitly mention press releases either, much less link to them. Journalists often want to give the impression that they went out to find the story, rather than that it was sent to them, and if they did go out to find it they often don’t seem to want to give away more details of how they got the story than they need too.

  19. justaddh3o says:

    I learned all of this from the last season of The Wire

  20. FilmAddict says:

    How about this method:  Attribute all officially sourced but “anonymous” quotes to the CEO or Chairman of the company.  Include a disclaimer at the end of the article explaining that all corporate approved communications have been attributed to the lowest publicly identifiable Officer of the corporation.  Or use “an authorized employee speaking for [CEO name]”.

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