“Off the record” are three of the most misunderstood words in the English language. What you mean and what a reporter hears can be diametrically opposite. The results can be surprising, infuriating and consequential.
The best media relations advice is never to utter the words “off the record”. Too often, their use is an indulgence. You are giddy to share information, but don’t want to be responsible for sharing it. You think you can have your way without responsibility by labeling the information as “off the record”. Wrong.
Step back for a moment to understand the job of reporters. They are paid to report the news, even if that means digging up what’s newsworthy where it is hidden. Ethical reporters treat news sources as valuable and don’t intentionally try to burn them. But if they think they can tease out a juicy tidbit or quote, they will try. They may offer a source an “opportunity” to provide information “on background”, which means without attribution, not “off the record”.
Skilled media relations professionals cultivate relationships with reporters, establishing a measure of mutual trust. Within that trust, a PR person may serve as a source or provide a timely story tip. That trust isn’t tested in the typical exchange that involves pitching a story to a reporter. But it can be tested when the reporter is working on an enterprise story, an investigative piece or a follow-up to breaking news – and faces a pending deadline. It’s not personal; it’s just the job: The PR pro represents a client. The reporter answers to an editor.
Clever reporters may invite an “off-the-record” comment during an in-person interview. PR pros should coach their clients in advance on this eventuality and the wisdom of not taking the bait. The advice should include stray comments made after the interview nominally ends or at the elevator when the reporter is leaving. Clients need a script or talking points – and the discipline to stick with them and not go rogue. The objective of an interview should be giving a reporter enough good information to fill two or three paragraphs in a story, not an unexpected and unwelcome lead.
This can be complicated if the client fails to deliver the intended key message – the reason for submitting to an interview. A PR person must improvise, which can excite client improvisation and, in due course, create an opening for a reporter to press for an “off-the-record” comment. Think of it as a pity play. Take my word, it can seem like an irresistible opportunity. Resist it anyway.
Worse still, a client makes a misstatement during an interview that a PR person needs to clean up, usually after the interview is over. This poses another opportunity for a reporter to ask for an “off-the-record” comment in exchange for the forbearance of correcting the misstatement. Still a bad idea. Most reporters won’t hold it against you or the client for declining.
Clever reporters may invite an “off-the-record” comment during an in-person interview. PR pros should coach their clients in advance on this eventuality and the wisdom of not taking the bait.
Pre-interview coaching should include instructions such as not lying, exaggerating or faking. If a client doesn’t know the answer to a question, he or she should be urged to say so and promise to forward accurate information in a timely manner after the interview. The most crucial advice is telling clients not to say something unless you are willing to see it appear in a story. It’s smart to remind the client just before the interview – and after, if necessary.
In event good advice on “off-the-record” comments goes unheeded, a media relations pro will need to jump in to address the fallout. The history of “off-the-record” comments ranges from minor indiscretions to gigantic flubs, with “off-the-record” comments becoming the story lead. Containing the fallout isn’t guaranteed and it can become the story line if the clean-up effort is clumsy or ham-handed. It also can provide a temptation to share inside information “off-the-record” as a road to redemption. It’s more likely a road to perdition.
“Off-the-record” sharing is one-sided. A reporter may get a story lead. The source gets egg on their face. The cost-benefit ratio is decidedly negative. There are many ways to work collaboratively with reporters to generate client-specific stories and contribute to genuine news stories. Stick with “on-the-record” and mind what you say. It’s the best deterrent to doing something foolhardy and potentially dangerous.