Off the Record: Setting Universal Standards

What does it mean to go “off the record” with a reporter? I’ve just updated a report — Can We Talk Off the Record? Increasing Understanding Between Reporters and Media Relations Experts — that answers that question.

No standardized definitions exist. Ask one reporter what off the record means and you’ll get one response. Ask a second and you’ll hear a different characterization. Worse, the confusion among those working in corporate and association media relations departments is even greater, judging from my anecdotal experience. This applies to many communications consultants, too.

The media relations and journalism professions need to arrive at a standard definition for terms of art like “off the record” and “on background.” This report aims to move both parties toward that goal. It is also intended to build a bridge between the two vocations, which too often look askance at one another.Interview taking notes

Applying Consistency

In an effort to provide clarity, Can We Talk Off the Record? contains definitions for these techniques sometimes employed by media relations experts and reporters:

  • On the record
  • Off the record
  • On background
  • Not for attribution

Both blocs have a responsibility to share this report and its definitions with our colleagues, and to the professional societies to which we belong, if we have any hope of gaining a common understanding.

As the paper notes:

“The research also unearthed some rather unexpected discoveries. First, even those who argue against speaking off the record have evidently used the tactic at some point. Second, communicators with a journalistic background discern far more value in utilizing off the record interviews than their colleagues who lack reporting experience. This finding may be most useful in helping to increase the understanding between journalists and their sources if those with a reporting background can be persuaded to help educate their colleagues who are inexperienced in the ways of a newsroom.

The essence of this report rests with 10 recommendations set forth in an attempt to help achieve the goals noted above.”

That guidance includes:

  • Keep media interviews on the record unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.
  • Agree to ground rules before beginning an interview.
  • Refrain from using such canards as “there is no such thing as off the record” or “off the record is a lie.”
  • Educate communicators, especially those with no media experience, on both the meaning and the value of conducting interviews off the record when warranted.

While on the subject of media relations staffers with no journalistic experience, I write in the report that companies that fail to employ ex-reporters in their media relations shop place their businesses at risk. I would go so far as to argue that they are practicing corporate malpractice.

New Wrinkles in the Research

What’s the latest from this update? For one, it expands and clarifies the definition of what off the record means, noting that it includes not only the words spoken, but also “Anything the reporter can see, hear, smell, or taste” such as “documents left in plain sight, the visible screens of any devices, office décor, hallway conversations, nonverbal signals.”

The report also raises a serious ethical question for reporters: Is it principled for one reporter to tell another about an off the record conversation with a source? While one high profile journalist cited holds that to be fine, I disagree. A commitment is a commitment. Reporters should not be searching for side doors to circumvent promises.

There is also an added passage about conditions under which a reporter might — in very limited circumstances — break a pledge of keeping information off the record.

Part of the original impetus behind the research was the fact that some media training consultants make claims like “off the record is a lie” or “there is no such thing as off the record.”

Such assertions are not only just plain wrong and ill-informed, they represent a fundamental ignorance of tried and tested media relations techniques.

Can We Talk Off the Record? is available online for a limited time from the Barks Communications website.

What have your experiences been with off the record interviews? Share your encounters in the “Leave a Reply” box below.


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