Here’s a question which comes up regularly on our media training courses - should you ever go ‘off the record’ with a reporter?
‘Off the record’ is a term that everyone has some understanding of and let’s face it, it sounds great when said to a reporter in a television drama or film.
But, as is often the case, there is devil in the detail.
Although ‘off the record’ is a widely used term, it means different things to different people – even journalists.
It is a confusing phrase which can trip-up even experienced media operators.
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 professional 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’ in response to journalists.
Trust is the key point. The term ‘off the record’ has no legal significance – it is purely a matter of trust between you and the reporter you are speaking to. The better you know the reporter, 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 every 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.
Our advice, which we give on our courses, is that you should never go ‘off the record’. Assume everything you tell a journalists could appear and be attributed to you.
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.
Why take that risk?
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