CRAFTING THE TESTIMONIAL QUOTE
During a recent conversation to clarify the testimonial quote of an MBA program participant, a client suggested rewording it and gave me the words she wanted to use. “This is the marketing message we’re trying to stress,” she explained.
“That may be,” I answered. “But that’s not what the person was saying.”
“I hate to tell you this,” the client responded, “but for the purposes of this piece, that doesn’t really matter.” In her mind, the reigning marketing message gave her license to rewrite the content of the person’s comments. She remarked that my approach was more journalistic than marketing-oriented. Journalists, she maintained, aim for accuracy. Marketeers impart whatever messages they want their audiences to hear.
While I don’t argue with the notion that clear marketing messages are necessary, I found this journalistic vs. marketing distinction bothersome. After mulling it over for awhile, I think I understand why. It has to do with the notion of “constituent voice” that I addressed in a previous Quill Tips article. I’m convinced that, when recruitment literature is born solely from an institution’s own vision of itself, it stands a stronger chance of coming across as inauthentic, stale, and cliché. Clients hire me to write admissions publications precisely because they want to avoid this—they want something fresh—and this particular client was no exception. Yet, given one participant’s personal observation about the program’s impact on him, she chose to replace it with a canned marketing message. What’s the point of talking to students, alumni, faculty, or others if you’re going to put words in their mouths?
Does that make me more of a “journalist” than a “marketeer”? I don’t think so. But I do believe that the authentic content of a constituent’s voice should not be sacrificed, even though marketing messages need to be delivered. So how to satisfy both masters? By steering interviews in directions likely to produce quotes supporting those messages. That’s just common sense.
Do I ever change a person’s words? Sure. I’ll re-craft people’s words for greater impact or readability, but retain their message—and send it to them to revise or approve. I’m also happy to fabricate a quote from scratch, usually with prior consent or a request from the person to be quoted, and send it to them for review. But what I will not do, at least not without permission, is to completely change the nature of what a person has said. To me it’s not a question of “journalism” vs. “marketing.” It’s a matter of ethics.