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The Danger of Speaking off the Record

Recent headlines demonstrate just how hard the job of a communications professional is. There are rules, and even when you follow them – you have no guarantee of success. So, in its basic form “off the record” means speaking to a journalist on background, where your name will not be used, and no quote will be attributed to you. The new term seems to be “leaker” – but the need to get information out there often trumps loyalty. Background or off the record info – has outed cover-ups by corporations to political scandals. Whistleblowers have saved lives, outed misdeed and overturned tyrants – like Watergate.

So two things are clear on this topic: One the media often relies on off the record information to validate a story and claim that they fiercely protected their sources – because if they give them up, they may never get an off the record comment again.

But off there record is not just used for the whistleblower. Often a PR person will go on background to get a point across that they don’t want attributed to their organization – but want included in the story. Kind of like doing color. Or if they want to share a point that is interesting but would not be appropriate coming from their organization.

But off the record is tricky. I knew a colleague who once called a news outlet and told them about a breaking story, and then asked if they would embargo it. “No,” came the editor’s answer. “You just told me the story.” She had failed to ask for the embargo first, so everything she had said was on the record. And many of us have been burned by going off the record with a journalist– only read our quotes in the news the next day.

So, let’s boil this down to the bare lessons.

  1. Anything said to a reporter is on the record.

  2. A reporter agreeing to honor your “off the record” comment is not always safe.

  3. Don’t speak off the record unless you have an established relationship with an outlet or reporter.

  4. Be sure to think through what you are doing, and what your goals are.

  5. Always remember that the media is not the enemy, - but just a person doing their job, and if you screw up, don’t blame them.

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