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December 24, 2012

Media Tip: How to Go "Off The Record"

A guest post from Brad Phillips, author of The Media Training Bible.

Journalists don't really understand the phrase "off the record"-- or, more precisely, they can't agree on what it means. If you speak to 10 different journalists, you'll probably hear 10 different definitions.

In fact, one survey of five reporters from separate sections of The Washington Post found that each of the journalists defined "off the record" differently. Some thought it meant they couldn't ever use information they learned; others thought the information was fair game as long as they didn't identify their source. One of the reporters even admitted, "I have no idea what 'off the record' means."

If journalists themselves can't agree on the definition of "off the record," you shouldn't rely on the term to forge agreements with reporters. It's a meaningless expression. Banish it from your lexicon.

For that reason and others, many media trainers teach spokespersons that they should never go off the record or "on background." But as most political and public affairs professionals know, that's unrealistic advice--and, at times, counterproductive. There are times when sharing information you don't want printed (or, that you wanted printed but without your fingerprints on it) can be useful.

If you decide to speak off the record or on background (generally defined as meaning the information you provide can be used, but you can't be named or quoted in the story), you should:

1. Consult with a communications professional before the interview, either from an outside firm or within your own campaign, agency, or organization.

2. Consider your relationship with the reporter. Journalists who have treated you fairly for years are generally safer bets than reporters you've never worked with before.

3. Ask reporters to tell you what "off the record" or "on background" means to them prior to the interview. 4. Make any agreements with reporters before you say something you want kept off the record. You can't deliver an interesting tidbit and declare it off-limits afterward.

Those precautions will help minimize your risk, but it's important to remember there are never guarantees when going off the record or on background. Some reporters mistakenly use information they thought they were allowed to use; others get overruled by their editors; and others still name their sources when threatened with prison time by a judge. Therefore, always remember the most important rule of going off the record: if you can't afford the risk of being named in the story, remain on the record and say only what you'd be comfortable seeing in print the next morning.


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