Ad Agencies Beware of Speaking with Reporters off the Record

Brian Lewis, a former reporter for The Tennessean newspaper, described in a column the different levels of speaking with reporters:

Off the record:  “To have an off-the-record conversation means that the information will not be used in any way in a story.  Many editors, including mine, don’t allow reporters to have off-the-record conversations.”

On background:  “To have an on-background conversation means that the information may be used in a story, but the person who is talking will not be named in connection with the information that is ‘on background.’”

On the record:  “This is the standard conversation with reporters.  However, reporters should identify themselves as working on an article before beginning an interview…once a statement has been made on the record, it cannot be taken off-record.”

While Brian’s explanation of these three levels is helpful, my advice to ad agencies is to never speak off the record, unless you really know and trust the reporter.

Even then, there are risks.

Consider this headline from a story by the New York Times News Service:  “India’s nuclear identify unclear.”  The subhead reads:  “‘Off the record, we are totally unprepared’ says one of its top military strategists.”

I wonder how the career of that military strategist is going these days. He certainly should have known better than to make such a remark to a reporter, and I suspect he learned his lesson after getting burned so badly by someone he apparently trusted.

What’s even more disturbing than this official’s lack of judgment, though, is that The New York Times  had no qualms about using something he told one of its reporters in confidence and clearly thought was off the record. 

The paper’s subhead admits it can’t be trusted, which is why if you don’t want to risk having something appear in print or on radio, TV or the Internet, don’t share it with a reporter!

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

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