Don’t be a jack-ass: Clarify ground rules before agreeing to talk ‘off-the-record’

 

Photograph: Jason DeCrow/AP

The White House was surprised and embarrassed when a reporter tweeted to thousands of his “followers” that  President Obama had said that Kanye West was a “jack-ass” for his the monumental rudeness toward country singer Taylor West at the Video Music Awards.

Not that the President wasn’t spot on with his assessment of West. But he has bigger fish to fry. And didn’t he learn anything from that press conference in July when he declared that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly?” When the President expresses an opinion, it becomes news — and can become a distraction from the policy agenda he is promoting.

Turns out that Obama’s slam had been an off-hand comment made during a supposed “off-the record” time while CNBC was setting up a pool camera for a formal interview. ABC’s Terry Moran over-heard the comment and reported it via Twitter. When the White House objected, Moran took down the Tweet, but by that time it was flying around the Internet at light speed, probably providing a temporary boost to the President’s approval ratings.

But what cover exactly does the mysterious “off-the-record” provide?

Kelly McBride argues on Poynter online that off-the-record means just one thing — that a journalist can’t attribute information or a quote to the source, and in fact will go to jail rather than give up the identity of the source. Furthermore, she asserts that she has

“qualms about ever letting the president of the United States go off the record. He’s the most powerful man in the worldI suspect that the status of the conversation between CNBC and Obama was unclear to everyone involved. Reporters often conduct a casual conversation before or after an official interview. That’s how reporters and sources get to know each other. But that’s not the same as off-the-record, and the president of all people knows that.”

That’s the problem — “off-the-record” can mean so many things in different circumstance. (Which is why in media training we always tell executives never to assume anything is off the record.) As a media relations professional, there may be times when you need to speak off the record — but only with a journalist you know and trust, and only after specifying the ground rules.

For example, “off-the-record” can be thought to mean:

  • Side comments shared before the reporter turns on the recording device cannot be used in the story. Often the person being interviewed assumes this privilege is in place even if it hasn’t been specified — a common mistake made by executives (including the nation’s Chief Executive, see above). Color provided during this “warm-up” period when the source has his/her guard down can definitely shape the opinion of the journalist in subsequent reporting. Even if a joke in poor taste or sarcastic comment doesn’t find its way into the story, it may color the reporter’s view of the speaker. WHEN IN THE PRESENCE OF A REPORTER, YOU ARE ON THE RECORD. REFRAIN FROM SAYING ANYTHING YOU DON”T WANT TO SEE PRINTED OR AIRED.
  • The reporter can use the information or quote in the story but not attribute it to the source. Sometimes this means the reporter can use the quote but will attribute it only to an unnamed person within your company or organization. Sometimes it means the identity of the source cannot be qualified in any way. Make sure you and the journalist agree on this important distinction.
  • The reporter can’t report the information or use the quote at all — it can only be used to help guide the journalist’s subsequent reporting. This understanding, sometimes called “deep background” is very rare. Obviously, journalists will seldom agree to such a restrictive arrangement. Yet this is what many executives (and PR people who should know better) think they are getting when they quickly ask: “We’re off-the-record, right?”

Sources sometimes cloak their identity in order to slam a political or career rival or someone they’re mad at. This is unscrupulous cowardice and journalists demonstrate questionable ethics when they enable such behavior.

But speaking “off-the-record” can provide necessary cover for a source who fears retribution. For example, “whistle blowers” raising legitimate concerns that have fallen on deaf ears within an organization. Or a PR person providing information “off-the-record” to dissuade a journalist from writing an erroneous story at a time two organizations are wrestling in private and have committed to not “negotiate in the media.”

Bottom line: Begin from the assumption that you are on the record. When special circumstances necessitate going “off-the-record,” do so only with a journalist you know and trust (note: you can’t go “off-the-record” when speaking to a group of reporters), and only after making sure you both agree as to what you mean by it.

- Jon Harmon

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