‘Off the record’ comments today could be published tomorrow

Imagine a reporter is interviewing you on a topic of your expertise, whether print, broadcast or online. You’re having a robust, yet friendly discussion that wanders from the original topic into area that is more sensitive.

The reporter is engaging and disarming. You’re comfortable with the reporter and begin a sentence:  “Off the record …”

You feel deceived and a bit hurt when your “off the record” words are in ink and blasted all over the Internet the next day.

Avoid this situation by understanding what “off the record” means.

Prompted by the Rolling Stone Magazine profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Chuck Todd,  chief White House correspondent and political director for NBC News, and Albert Oetgen, managing editor for NBC News’ Washington bureau, have a piece in The Atlantic that brings clarity to journalistic conventions inside the Washington Beltway.  Some of their points can apply to local business people being interviewed by local reporters.

Do not become too cozy with reporters; they are there to do a job.

“They forgot he (The Rolling Stone reporter) was a reporter,” said Ari Fleischer, who worked in President George W. Bush’s press office, in The Atlantic. “You don’t know how deeply it offends me as a public relations professional to allow a reporter that kind of access. It wasn’t reporting. That was eavesdropping.”

For business, public relations and marketing professionals who invite reporters into their facilities, factories or other places of business, for tours or to spend time with staff, it can be easy to forget the reporters are there to do a job.  Likewise, it is easy to become comfortable and relaxed with reporters who regularly cover your business or industry.

Regardless of how familiar, inquisitive, excited about your business, product or service a reporter may be, remember he or she is not your friend. The reporter will listen to a grumbling employee or seek out others not on your “official spokesperson list.”

Know the ground rules and vocabulary.

The Atlantic points out that Washington officials and the reporters have a semi-formal system to regulate the way information is sourced. Pete Williams, the network correspondent covering the Justice Department and Supreme Court for NBC News, and Pentagon spokesman during the First Gulf War, defined terms that unofficially govern the flow of information to the media in Washington:

On the record — Quote verbatim with attribution.

On background — Use the information without attribution, or with generic attribution.

Off the record — You know it, you can shop it around, act on it, but you can’t report it, until you get it somewhere else.

Those “rules” may work in Washington, but the former reporters and editors on the Caliber staff have their own glossary:

On background — For a true transparency and accountability, reputable and ethical media seldom use unattributed quotes and information, unless absolutely necessary.  Transparency is one of the essential distinctions of a professional journalist.

Thus, when a reporter asks you for something “on background,” clarify that you will be giving history or clarity to an issue.

Off the record: Never expect something you say to be “off the record.”

Giving the reporter a wink and beginning the sentence “off the record,” does not affirm that it is truly “off the record.” We discourage giving personal or confidential information that you do not want to see in print the next day. If you choose to give a reporter such information, make it clear — a verbal contract if you will — that the comment will not appear in print until he or she finds it from another, attributable source.

Many reporters will not listen to an “off the record” comment during an interview and will ask, “Why can’t this be on the record?” or say “If you can’t say it on the record, don’t tell me at all.”

We agree with The Atlantic piece: “The terms differ from reporter to reporter and source to source.”

“What’s most important is that the journalist and the source clearly understand what the agreement is, no matter what it is called,” said David McCormick, who is responsible for NBC News standards.

Mark Salter, who co-authored several books with and wrote speeches for Arizona Sen. John McCain, said in The Atlantic piece, “I seldom speak to reporters off the record. The few times I have are when I’ve been in a social setting with reporters.

“In other words, when I’m not working,” Salter said in The Atlantic. “I might, though not often, say as a precaution in such social conversations, which obviously often include political topics, ‘just to be  clear, we’re off the record tonight.’ “

As a news source business, public relations and marketing professionals, we want to and need to distribute information.  However, we discourage attempting to negotiate the terms of attribution or expecting something to be “off the record.”

If something can’t be on the record, don’t say it.

(Thanks to ItzaFineDay for the photo)

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