That’s what he didn’t say

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A number of microphones

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.

Cavendish press conference

Telling it how it is

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“.

Summary
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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{ 18 comments }

68GT September 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm

It’s about time someone called this out! As a marketing communications professional having worked in motor sports for the past 13 years, I have written literally hundreds of quotes on behalf of other people. The reason they hire me in the first place is because I can write good quotes the effectively communicate what they want to say. The trick is, and I’ve always prided myself in, writing them as if they really DID say it. I use their vocabulary and rhythm of speech to craft what they want to say into something that sends the right message 0r insight. They are after all, professional drivers or team owners, etc not professional communicators, which is why they hire PR people. Almost everyone of my clients has told me, “I couldn’t have said it better myself…”

So, I too bristle at the obvious, sanitized, generic corporate speak that does the PR industry no favors whatsoever. It becomes a case of diminishing returns as ultimately no one believes the press release. There are a few teams in top line motorsports horrendously guilty of this and some of the super teams in cycling are not far behind. And that, is a shame.

Sal Ruibal September 20, 2011 at 7:58 pm

I am really happy to be posting this comment today because The Inner Ring truly captures the ethos of cycling journalism and is a paradigm for all who have come before and those still unborn. The depth and breadth of Inner Ring’s media reach will help me reach my goals for the next season. I can’t wait to stand on the comment podium in my fabulous Inner Ring kit from Castelli.

PiesG September 20, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Bet if his quote had been published it would have been much more interesting….hope Wasserman don’t hack his twitter account

Chuffy September 20, 2011 at 9:00 pm

The bit you’ve missed, or at least glossed over, is that the person who the quote is attributed to will have given their assent to it. It may not be their own words, but they’ve signed it off and may possibly have asked for it to be changed in some way if it doesn’t reflect what they want to say.

To be honest, it’s not a big deal. If Cav (or whoever) had to sit down and write their own quotes they would probably come out with something much the same. A quote on a meat & potatoes press release isn’t a vehicle to give the outside world a glimpse into your soul. It’s a dull chore that they pay someone else to take care of.

Dave H September 20, 2011 at 9:29 pm

All I am thinking, Is this really news? Happens everday in all professions all over the world, and as “Chuffy” stated, Cav has the final say.

Higgins September 20, 2011 at 10:02 pm

This is why Twitter is pure gold. There are marketing releases like this, then there are the four letter diatribes which the actual sportsmen themselves often put out on the spur of the moment ( I love the combination of Cav’s and his GF Peta Todd’s Twitter feeds)..no wonder large sponsoring corporations are nervous at such a free and immediate communication channel.

The Inner Ring September 20, 2011 at 10:17 pm

68GT: yes, it can be done well and some teams have got it right.

Chuffy: I agree and it’s a good point. But often people don’t sign off or they are not interested.

Dave H: for news, visit cyclingnews.com, velonation etc. My frustration is perhaps from being sent so many; some are good but many are quite badly done.

Higgins: yes, that’s where you can read the more authentic writings. Cavendish’s twitter is one of the most amusing ones.

Duncan September 20, 2011 at 11:37 pm

Yes! Everyone knows the words are bull but somehow it goes on and on.

bikecellar September 20, 2011 at 11:55 pm

If he did not say it, then it is a lie to say he did, he may “sign off” and agree with the wording off the release but it is not neccessary to lie to get the message across.

Miso Kuropka September 21, 2011 at 12:24 am

I am wondering: what is this post about? Version A: inrng.com knows the team (other than the sky) Cavendinsh sign for, but he promised not to tell (but he so thrilled with the news that he needs to share this excitement wihou telling the name of the team). Version B: Cavendish is signing with the sky, but nobody knows yet even though everybody is expecting it. I I were inrng.com, I would truly enjoy some mistification during the process….

Jim September 21, 2011 at 1:58 am

@GT68 – my gauntlet lies at your feet… I challenge you to pick the vocabulary & rhythms of Jens Voigt!
“… all it takes is that like 5 Astanas get attacked by a bear in the mountains you know, in the pyrenees, & they’re out & then we’re just smoking…”
Some real quotes are pure gold.

snappy don September 21, 2011 at 2:22 am

Agent:
“Cav- Sign with me next year.. Here’s my plan. First, don’t breathe a word about the new team.. We’ll keep it under wraps and build the sense of expectation, and therefore the potential to monetize the announcement, and in fact I’ll work on ways to earn you (and me) $$ every time you open your mouth.
Can we get a subscription fee from your twitter followers?? – I’ll look into it. Every time you drop a cuss it’ll be gold gold gold..
AT the moment you’re only the 35th most marketable athlete in the world.. stick with me my lad.. ”

ahh, I love sport.

The Inner Ring September 21, 2011 at 9:27 am

Duncan: it’s an industry, no.

bikecellar: yes, I find this practice strange.

Miso Kuropka: it’s surely Sky but this piece has nothing to do with Cav, I was borrowing the press release to make a point.

Jim: yes, that’d be hard

snappy don: Cavendish’s twitter is valuable but precisely because it sounds authentic.

Jamjar September 21, 2011 at 1:32 pm

The signing on quote is seldom anything but dull, even (especially?) when it’s from the ‘star’, see numerous quotes from footballers signing new deals as evidence. Cav is one of the few who might have offered something more interesting, although that’s maybe why a bland quote was provided in the first place. Hope this isn’t a sign of things to come from Cav under new management.

I’m wondering what, if anything, this has to do with Cav’s likely move to Sky and his previous representation by Sky’s PR manager, albeit through a different vehicle (Face). Perhaps to avoid conflict of interest or accusations of favouritism?

BTW Your blog is a must for the story behind the story – I really enjoy the feeling of getting inside knowledge and insight ahead of the game. Many thanks and lots more please .

Larry T. September 21, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Hmm. BS and PR baloney is OK if it’s well crafted? Not to me. A fake Colnago is still a fake no matter how nicely it’s made. Same with phony quotes and “autographs” written by machines. It’s only a quote if the person actually said it, what the PR guys dream up is nothing more than BS even if the guys later claims “I couldn’t have said it better myself”…the point being he did NOT say it. In the end it matters little since anyone with half-a-brain believes none of this crap anyway, especially when it comes to product endorsements and the like.

Rider Council September 21, 2011 at 9:41 pm

pro cycling off the bike is starting to feel and look more and more like an Orange County strip mall Starbucks every year.

Higgins September 23, 2011 at 8:55 pm

To be fair, this is just a statement about joining a management group, which exists precisely because people like Cav need someone else to handle business arrangements whilst he deals with smaller issues like turning pedals faster than anyone else.

As long as sportsmen remain free to speak openly about the actual sport, this kind of corporate speak is as relevant and disturbing as seeing Mr Idontwinalot Farrar recommending his own eyecare specialist.

grumpyoldman September 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

Public Relations is propaganda, simple as that.

Edward Bernays, the founding father of PR, was fascinated by the power of propaganda to shape opinion. He invented the Orwellian term ‘public relations’ to disguise the true nature of what PR is and does.

Unfortunately, there is no area in the modern world, including the world of cycling, that is immune to the contagion.

When you see the kind of press release illustrated above, the best bet is to take it all with a wheelbarrow load of salt.

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