Segal: ‘A spokesperson who wants to be anonymous?’

David Segal, who writes The New York Times “Haggler” column, couldn’t believe what he was reading:

When the Haggler wrote to Samsung, a woman named Rachel Quinlan, who works for the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, sent an e-mail that she said should be attributed to a “spokesperson” for the company. She declined to name that person.

Really? A spokesperson — a person who speaks for a living — who wants to be anonymous?

Not only does this sound ridiculous, it also makes Samsung seem tin-eared. Actually, that is unfair to tin, which is far more supple than Samsung is in this circumstance. What consumers and the Haggler want when products break is some sense that human beings are trying to fix them. (Note to corporations: the anonymous spokesman is a dreadful idea.)

To which this non-haggler says: When was the last time you phoned a spokesperson, Segal? They pull this stuff all the time!

Sometimes spokespeople can’t have their name attached to their words for reasons I understand (the FBI, for instance, has such a rule) or reasons that are at least arguable (they are conveying company-approved words they didn’t say).

But often spokespeople demand to be off the record even when you’re calling about nuts-and-bolts, utterly mind-numbing factual matters. I recently had a spokesperson give me incorrect information after demanding I not identify her, then call me to tell me I needed to correct the information while insisting that the correct information not be attributed to her, either. Lesson learned, until the next time, probably.

But I’m also a little loath to rip the practice because half the time I don’t think readers care which flack passed on the frequently anodyne statements I’m including. Sometimes I just say “a spokesperson,” which at least adds the thrill of breaking AP style.

Former Poynter Managing Editor Steve Myers had a bug in his bonnet about this issue when I worked with him, frequently hammering me over instant messaging software over my indifference to it, so I phoned him while he’s house-hunting in New Orleans. He said he understands the motivation of spokespeople to speak anonymously: “anyone would want less accountability in their jobs,” Myers said. “It really surprises me that journalists would go along with it.”


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  • Anonymous

    “But I’m also a little loath to rip the practice because half the time I don’t think readers care which flack passed on the frequently anodyne statements I’m including.”

    Mr. Beaujon, it’s not up to you to follow or not follow journalistic principles (especially core ones like attribution) based on what you think readers care or not care about. In the least, you should be able to cite a formal poll.

    But even if that confirmed what you think, it does not absolve you of your responsibilities as a journalist to provide attribution.

  • Anonymous

    “To which this non-haggler says: When was the last time you phoned a spokesperson, Segal? They pull this stuff all the time!”

    Well, then let’s not resist it or call it out. Let’s just go along with it and ridicule the person who DOES stand up for journalistic principles.

    Including telling us that those who would hold us up to those principles “have a bee in their bonnett”.

    And “jounralists” worry why people have lost faith in journalism.