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August 20, 2007 10:50 PM   Subscribe

What are my rights as a freelance writer? If I'm writing about employees competing on a company-sponsored team, do I have to clear everything I write with their PR people??

I was invited by a friend to join a sports team his company was sponsoring to compete in an upcoming festival. Aspiring writer that I am, I pitched an idea to the local free paper, and to the other team members to see if they'd let me talk to them and write an article about the team and the event. The response from both was positive, and things went well. About a half week after I sent the e-mail out to the team describing what I wanted to do, the de facto leader of the team got a bit nervous...

She (let's call her 'Jodie') prohibited me from naming the company or any of its employees on the team unless I got prior approval from their corporate communications manager on the article I wrote before I sent it to my editor. She said this once in a conversation between me and her, and again in front of the entire team at a post-practice lunch. Needless to say, the rest of the team had cooled to the idea of talking to me after that.

It was a Sunday, and I explained to her that my deadline for the article was Monday morning. My compromise solution was to send the article to both my editor and their communications officer at the same time, and have the communications officer deal with the editor about any problems the company might have. Jodie's repeated that their communications officer had to give approval before anyone else saw the piece, and that if I was unwilling to do that then I had to remove all mention of the company and its employees.

I decided then that I had no choice but to remove them, and spent that night re-writing the article into something I am not at all happy with. I sat there enraged thinking, "What the hell? Why am I having to write this piece in this way? Why should I need to get the company's approval?"

Monday morning, Jodie e-mailed me again and told me that it was 'imperative' that I contact their corporate communications before I sent my article to the editor or for any sort of publication. Their communications manager got back to me separately (my friend in the company had e-mailed them for me), and after explaining that the problem was no longer really a problem and that I had re-written the piece, I asked her to clarify their company's policies about such things. She explained that it was unlikely that they would have asked to screen the article in advance of publication, but that they would have asked about what I was likely to write, and who I had talked to. This answer, while better than the one Jodie had given me, was still a bit too ambiguous for me.

My view on the situation is this: Whatever issues there were with my mentioning the company or employees in the piece, they were between the employees and the company. As a non-employee, I believe I was within my rights to write what I wanted within the bounds that I had laid out in my original e-mail to the entire team. It seems to me that there should have been no reason for me to submit my article for approval prior to its even being seen by an editor at the paper.

But: I have very little idea about what rights I actually have about writing in a public forum about a team sponsored by a private entity. If I am participating on a team that is sponsored by a private entity, am I automatically subject to whatever corporate rules they have about talking to the media, even if I'm not an employee myself? Help! I feel like I've self-censored, and it makes me feel dirty. Did I really? I'm in Canada, and so advice about my Canadian rights would be appreciated.
posted by mariokrat to Law & Government (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
IANAL, but unless you signed something giving away a whole bunch of your rights to this company, I don't see how they have any say in what you write.
posted by jjb at 10:56 PM on August 20, 2007

Best answer: You're not subject to the company's policies. They shouldn't be speaking to the media if they don't want their interview written up. A rule of thumb (from my Canadian journalism school prof) is that you should never let anyone but your editor clear what you're writing. It's up to companies to manage their employees, not you.

However, how does your friend relate to all this? That's probably the part you need to manage. You might want to keep your friend out of hot water, if he's in any. But that's purely a friendship element and not a journalistic one.
posted by acoutu at 11:01 PM on August 20, 2007

If you are the US, freedom of the press means that you do not have to allow anyone, not even your editor, "approve" what you right. Of course, working as a freelancer (as opposed to, say, publishing your own zine) means you are at the beck and call of your own boss.

However, it is absolutely NOT the policy of a majority of newspapers, and many of my own editors have strictly forbidden the practice, that a source gets to read or have editorial input on a story before it goes to print.

The only issue you may come across here is if the company is an advertiser, and they threaten to pull ads if the paper runs the story, and your editor and publisher don't have the cajones to stand them down.

Best advice here it to not be indignant, but nicely explain to HR that that it is not the publication's policy to allow this.
posted by Brittanie at 11:29 PM on August 20, 2007

Sorry, just read the tags like a fool. Don't know the rules in Canada but I stand by the assertion that many editors in the US would absolutely forbid this.
posted by Brittanie at 11:30 PM on August 20, 2007

If the company is the publisher, it sets the rules. If not, not. You have the moral question of whether you want your friend to deal with the fallout, but other than that, you have no journalistic obligation to clear anything unless you have agreed the terms in advance of getting your material. This is not a 'works team' comprised solely of employees, where there might be an implicit understanding of confidentiality -- after all, you're in it.

Team sponsorship is easier to understand in countries where the big sporting teams have corporate logos splashed across the kit. For example, Wayne Rooney is paid by Man Utd and by Nike. AIG pays Man Utd for sponsorship rights. Rooney's contractual obligations to his club and boot supplier are clear; his obligation to the insurance company that sponsors his club are much less clear.
posted by holgate at 11:33 PM on August 20, 2007

Your instincts were correct. Publications do not permit companies to have approval rights to content.

However, you've now let this PR person push you around and may have tacitly agreed to her approval. Next time, stick to your guns.

Where the hell was your editor? They should've explained that Ms. PR person was out of line and given you a nice, neat party line to spout.

What's the company's safeguard against misrepresentation, some of you may ask? Trust in journalistic ethics. If the interviewees or the company is uncomfortable with the publication, they should not consent to an interview.
posted by desuetude at 6:18 AM on August 21, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks all for the confirmation. As soon as I agreed, I felt like I'd given in, hence the dirty feeling.

Part of the issue was that the piece was time sensitive and I didn't want to miss my deadline. I would have contacted my editor if I'd had another day to work, but alas... And acoutu has another good point. I didn't want to create a situation that would have made it difficult for my friend at work.

But ya.. Next time....

I feel like such an amateur right now.
posted by mariokrat at 8:15 AM on August 21, 2007

Jodie's the one who pissed you off. She took it upon herself to warn you publicly about rules that didn't exist, and she made the team members (and you) nervous. Wouldn't it be fun to write that "Jodie _____ , who isn't officially the team leader but acts like one, tried repeatedly to censor this article." Heh, just kidding. Seriously, though -- you can bet the communications manager knows that strong-arming the press will backfire.
posted by wryly at 8:36 AM on August 21, 2007

Here's the deal— Tell Jodie that this is good press, and she should be happy to get it. Tell your editor that the story fell through, or that you need to extend your deadline. Don't ever show your story to sources before submitting it to an editor— at most, clear quotes (that's why you also tape 'em).

But seriously, tell Jodie to get bent. You might also want to send a note to the company mentioning that they just submarined good, free PR.
posted by klangklangston at 9:50 AM on August 21, 2007

Best answer: Of course you don't have to get their approval (and yes, in Canada we have a free press too).

But to be diplomatic, you could've simply informed them, since it was requested of you. If they then asked for approval rights, tell them that you can't, and if they don't accept that, direct them to your editor.

But they didn't. It sounds to me like the corporate communications office was completely reasonable. She didn't ask to screen the piece, so I really don't see what the problem is here -- nothing personal, but it sounds like you really got your undies in a knot for no reason.

The office might have even been helpful in providing background information or a contact to interview, so it's best not to make an enemy of them. I don't see how it serves your piece or your professional reputation to treat them as an antagonist. Frankly, I would've probably contacted the company *first*.

And I don't blame your contact Jodie, as she can't be expected to know anything about journalism. I can understand her second thoughts as to whether giving her verbal permission to write about the team was okay. Corporations have policies about *everything* and she was just trying to cover her butt.
posted by loiseau at 11:17 AM on August 21, 2007

Response by poster: loiseau: I've done my best to be diplomatic, and to treat this as a learning experience. I'm not a trained journalist, but I love writing. I suppose I should be happy that this was a minor incident over a relatively unimportant subject. Their corporate communications office was reasonable, and I have not tried to antagonize them. I e-mailed Jodie yesterday saying that I understand why she said what she said, but that she was out of line for making it my responsibility to confirm policies that apply to her and not me.

I suppose the biggest thing is that I'm disappointed in myself because I gave in so easily. I'd like to call it an after effect of having to go through the ethics review process during undergrad and grad school that has put me a bit on edge ("Show that your subjects will suffer no harm to their professional reputations as a result of your interviews."?? WTF.) But I suppose its not just that either. I had thought of myself as a free speech advocate but when it came down to it..

Thanks again everyone. Since there seem to be a lot of people with experience in journalism here, are there any other such things that I should be looking out for as I look for my next story?
posted by mariokrat at 11:47 AM on August 21, 2007

The big journalistic ethical thing I wonder about: I hope you disclosed the fact that you're ON the team you're writing about.

In the future, be upfront about when you're conducting an interview and taking notes. Tell them what you're working on, whether it will definitely or only maybe be published, where and when it is likely to run.

When people put conditions on an interview from the outset, you DO have an obligation to respect those conditions.

So, "You can quote me, as long as my boss tells me later it was OK to talk to you" means you shouldn't quote the person until the boss says OK. "This is off the record" means you can't use it. This is not a matter of law, simply of being a decent and ethical person.

You DO NOT have any obligation to respect conditions put on an interview after the fact, however in some situations you may want to do so out of decency or a desire not to burn a source.

When you interview someone who is representing a company, it's their responsibility - not yours - to know what their company's policies are. If the source violates company policy, screw it. Company policy is not your problem.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:51 PM on August 21, 2007

Mariokat, once you've published a few stories, the nervousness/exhileration will lesson and you'll be less likely to be bullied by a source.

I do sometimes read back quotes to nervous sources at the end of an interview. People who aren't used to talking to the media sometimes accidentally leave out words. If your publication doesn't have a factchecker, this can be a decent gesture. But you're not obligated to do so.
posted by acoutu at 5:01 PM on August 21, 2007

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