Why off-the-Record Conversations Should be off Limits for Agencies

One of the things I stress when doing media training is the importance of not speaking off the record in interviews.

There may be exceptions–such as if you really know and trust the reporter–but generally it’s not a good idea to tell a news media person anything about your agency or clients that you wouldn’t want repeated on radio or TV, in a publication or on the Internet.

Some news media outlets have policies forbidding off-the-record conversations. That’s a good, ethical policy, but unfortunately not all adhere to it.

There are lots of examples of why talking off the record is so risky, but I’ve yet to find one that drives home the point better than this headline titled “India’s nuclear identify unclear.”

Check out the subhead: “‘Off the record, we are totally unprepared’ says one of its top military strategists.”

Off the Record Newspaper Comment

Wow. This subhead makes a pretty clear statement beyond the quote: Don’t trust us because we won’t keep an off-the-record remark confidential. Need I say more?

The best practice is to assume everything an agency spokesperson says in an interview is on the record and may be used.

Understanding the different levels of speaking with reporters is important for PR success in agencies as well as other organizations. A number of years ago, a reporter for The Tennessean newspaper described these levels in a column. They provide helpful guidance to anyone preparing for a media interview:

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.”

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