Here’s a fascinating quote from a spokesperson:
“Most of what I said was humorous and joking. Legally, it may have been on-the-record, but the spirit of it was off.”
It came from the now former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci in his first interview since leaving the post he held for all of ten days.
He was of course talking about his now infamous interview with Ryan Lizza, from The New Yorker, in which he suggested that the former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was a ‘paranoid schizophrenic’ and that chief strategist Steve Barron was, well, let’s just say extremely dexterous – only in far more vulgar terms.
It was a rant which cost him his new job. But it also again highlights the dangers of going off-the-record with a reporter – something we are often asked about during our media training courses.
I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter. It won't happen again.— Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci) July 28, 2017
While Mr Scaramucci felt the conversation was not going to be reported, the journalist clearly held a very different view.
Mr Lizza, who wrote in the article that Scaramucci had initiated the conversation and had not asked for it to be 'off-the-record or on background', later said: “My job as a reporter is not to keep things private and confidential when the Communications Director tells me things. My job is to report them, so the public understands what’s going on at the White House.
“It was on-the-record and extremely newsworthy. And my job is to put that in the public domain.”
Mr Scaramucci, or The Mooch as he is otherwise known, is not the first person to be tripped up by this much used and often misunderstood term.
Pretty strange for a WH communications director to not understand concept of off-the-record. https://t.co/Vl8XvncPf7— Bruce Bartlett (@BruceBartlett) July 28, 2017
The problem is it means different things to different people and can cause difficulties for more sophisticated media operators than Mr Scaramucci.
Essentially there are two main meanings for ‘off-the-record’.
One definition is that the reporter is given information which they can use as long as they do not attribute it to anyone. This is why you often see stories with quotes and information provided by ‘a source’ or ‘an insider’.
The other meaning of the term is when information is given to a reporter to help them put their article in context. The journalist is trusted not to use the information directly or reveal the source. This is sometimes used by experienced press officers or PR professionals trying to put a reactive media enquiry in context, but only when they have a good relationship with the reporter. And these days the additional information they provide is likely to have already been signed off by their company as ‘lines to take’ or ‘additional briefing’ in response to journalist enquiries.
Scaramucci's case is slightly different. He had called the reporter to try to find the source of a White House leak, which is in itself pretty naive, before becoming increasingly agitated and indiscreet.
Trust is the key point here. Even if you use the term ‘off-the-record’ it has no legal significance – take note Mr Scaramucci. It is purely a matter of trust between you and the reporter you are speaking to.
The better you know the reporter (Mr Scaramucci and Mr Lizza have differing accounts of how well they know each other), the lower the risk, but the risk factor is always there when you choose to go ‘off the record’.
Ask yourself this: if a journalist is armed with a notebook, dictaphone, microphone or TV camera, can you ever truly be ‘off-the-record’? Sure, you can ask them to put the pen down and switch off the equipment, but even then an element of trust is required.
The advice we give on our media training courses is that you should never go ‘off the record’. Assume everything you tell a journalists could appear in the news and be attributed to you.
And if you are not comfortable having something attributed to you, don’t say it at all.
Ultimately, if you find yourself complaining about the coverage of something you said ‘off the record’ the damage has already been done.
Mr Scaramucci told the Huffington Post he plans to take Mr Rizza out for beer – we can only hope for his sake he develops a better understanding of ‘off-the-record’ before that meeting.
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