Like most things in public relations, there’s no simple one-size-fits-all answer. While many professionals will advise against going “off the record,” there are simply too many factors involved to provide a simple answer.
What does “off the record” mean?
It’s important for both a reporter and source to be on the same page about the ground rules for any interview or conversation. If nothing is agreed to in advance, it must be presumed that it is all on the record and free to be used however the reporter prefers.
The problem with shorthand terms is that not everyone defines them consistently. In my years as a communicator, I have run across a wide array of terms that imply less the completely on the record conversation.
Some terms that get tossed around without a lot of explanation include:
- On background
- Deep background
- Not for attribution
- Off the record
In its purest form, telling a reporter something “off the record” means that it is almost as if they never heard it. That, of course, is absurd. You can’t unring a bell. Realistically, it’s similar to evidence obtained without a search warrant. You can’t use it directly, but it might help you find the information you want in a more legitimate way.
Agree on definitions up front
Never tell a reporter after the fact, “that was off the record.” It’s sort of like eating that cheesecake and then declaring afterwards that the calories didn’t count.
Because of the definition challenges noted above, it’s not enough to use a shorthand term. Be really clear about what you want and make sure the reporter agrees.
For instance, you should be clear about whether you are merely concerned about attribution or whether the information itself can’t be used in any form.
Relationships and trust matter
If you’re having your first ever interaction with a specific journalist, it’s probably not the right time for anything other than an on the record conversation. You simply haven’t built up a relationship where you can be sure you can trust the ground rules.
Over time, you will learn which reporters you can trust. They do this by having open conversations, quoting you correctly, and reporting fairly. Until they have proven themselves to you, there’s little reason to take risks.
Over the years, I have cultivated relationships with journalists to the point where our conversations were considered off the record — in both directions — until and unless we put it on the record explicitly. That’s certainly not the norm, but my point is simply that trusting relationships can be beneficial.
What are you trying to gain?
If you don’t want to be quoted on something, what do you want to accomplish? Over the years — especially when I was in politics — I have seen a number of reasons people seek to avoid attribution or share completely off the record material.
Here are just a few:
- To dish dirt on a rival
- To be a whistleblower
- To provide a reporter with greater context
- To convince a reporter not to run with a desired storyline
- To curry favor with a reporter
- To look informed and impress a reporter
- To share confidential information while feeling less guilty about it by claiming it can’t be used
Of course, there are many more motives and objectives, but you need to be conscious of your own aim before you seek restrictive ground rules for a conversation with a journalist.
Remember the Washington Post test
On my first day as an intern on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, my boss told me to remember the Washington Post test. What he meant was that anything I wrote could show up on the front page of the city’s preeminent paper.
Anything we say or write as communicators could show up in the media somewhere. Even in off the record conversations, we should be prepared for the content — and perhaps even the attribution — to go public and be willing to accept the consequences.
Good ground rules can mitigate risk, but they doesn’t eliminate it.
There are legitimate reasons to go off the record. If you understand the risks and rewards, you can make an informed decision about whether it’s a good tactic in your current situation.