You have an interview lined up with a reporter. You want to make sure the reporter has enough background to fill out the story, but you don’t want to be quoted on everything you say. How do you define what is “on the record,” “on background,” and “off the record?” What is the safest approach with reporter relations?
Don’t use the off the record privilege as a way of rehearsing your responses before putting them on the record. Before you go into the interview, be prepared. If you don’t know what you want to convey, how the headline should read, and what you want people to know about your issue, then chances are slim that you will be satisfied with the result of an interview. Always assume that anything you say to a reporter could end up in the news — even if you say, “this is off the record” ¾ especially when you are unfamiliar with a reporter. As you develop relationships with reporters you will learn to whom you can speak freely on background without being taken out of context. Below is a quick summary of the terms frequently used to define the ground rules for speaking with reporters.
On the record
When you speak on the record, everything you say to a reporter may be used and attributed to you by name.
When you tell a journalist you are speaking on background, he or she may publish what you say but cannot attribute it to you by name or title. Rather, the reporter will attribute your statements to a previously agreed upon identification such as, “a well informed source” or “an expert.” Like “off the record,” this is a regular point of confusion so you might just be specific and ask that an upcoming remark not be attributed to you. Speak only when you get a clear agreement.
Off the record
When you speak off the record, you give a reporter information that is for his or her knowledge only and cannot be used, printed or made public in any way. It also implies that a reporter should not take the information to another source in order to get official confirmation, but that practice is not a given.
Reporters generally dislike material that is off the record, even when it is being used to give background information. Reporters would prefer qualified on the record statements, so they can feel free to use all the information they receive with certainty. Off the record comments are only absolutely necessary in rare cases, when there is no other way to pass on sensitive information.
Do not give reporters information and then belatedly tell them that it is off the record. Preface each statement by saying “this information is off the record,” or better yet, “can I tell you something off the record?”
If giving statements in a group setting such as a press conference, it is generally best to be on the record at all times.
Beware of variations
Off the record can have different meanings depending on the reporter and outlet. Some reporters may view off–the-record information as deep background, not to be mentioned in any form in the final version of the story. Other reporters may interpret it to mean information that can be used, but not attributed to you.
Before giving a reporter off the record information, make sure that you both understand what off the record means, to avoid any confusion. Confirm that the reporter agrees to hear the material off the record.
The value of off the record
After a series of off the record leaks into the press, many reporters urged Senator John Kerry to drop the practice from his interviews. But many reporters disagreed, saying that the off the record comments helped them get to know him as a human being, and helped build a positive relationship with the senator.
Indeed, if you are trying to develop a more individual relationship in an interview, such as with a spokesperson who is telling a personal story, off the record comments may help flesh out the reporter’s impression of that person, without the risk of having every quote repeated in the story.
In general, ask yourself why you want something off the record. If it is potentially embarrassing, you may do better to just keep quiet. If it is information of a personal nature, that might actually help personalize a story.
And consider yourself warned: If your off the record remark makes the paper, you have little recourse. You might deny saying it, but that would be dishonest, and complaining that “it was off the record” only confirms you said it.
Giving off the record information is hazardous because it creates confusion for the reporter in researching, writing, and editing the final story. By contrast, fully attributed, on the record information gives your organization more credibility, because it gives the reporter solid information that they can use freely and without restriction.
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August 2004 Media Tip