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There’s quite a row brewing in America about something which was supposedly told to journalists ‘off-the-record’.
It is no secret that President Donald Trump has something of a strained relationship with the media and journalists.
But his latest Twitter rant, in which he complained about the trust in making ‘off-the-record’ comments being ‘blatantly violated’, makes for some interesting reading.
And they also add fresh impetus to the argument about whether a spokesperson can ever truly be off the record.
The issue rose to prominence again when some inflammatory ‘off-the-record’ comments Mr Trump made in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News during on-going trade talks with Canada were leaked.
He said that he would ‘not be making any compromises at all with Canada’ and that any deal with its neighbour would be ‘totally on our terms’.
He also suggested he was scaring the Canadians into submission by repeatedly threatening to impose tariffs on imports of Canadian-made cars.
He said: “Off the record, Canada’s working their ass off. And every time we have a problem with a point, I just put up a picture of a Chevrolet Impala.” Trump said. The Impala is produced at the General Motors plant in Canada.
These ‘off-the-record’ comments were not covered by Bloomberg – despite Mr Trump blaming them in a Tweet. But they were obtained and reported by the Toronto Star.
#Breaking: In secret remarks, Trump said he isn't making any compromises at all in NAFTA talks with Canada — but that he cannot say this publicly because “it’s going to be so insulting they’re not going to be able to make a deal,” the Star has learned. https://t.co/ZSmV5JPi5l— TorontoStar (@TorontoStar) August 31, 2018
And this led to Trump once again taking to his beloved Twitter account to denounce ‘more dishonest reporting’.
Wow, I made OFF THE RECORD COMMENTS to Bloomberg concerning Canada, and this powerful understanding was BLATANTLY VIOLATED. Oh well, just more dishonest reporting. I am used to it. At least Canada knows where I stand!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 31, 2018
Still can’t believe that Bloomberg violated a firm OFF THE RECORD statement. Will they put out an apology?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2018
It should be said that Bloomberg has tried to distance itself from the comments, denying that it has been the source of the leak.
It’s Washington bureau chief Craig Gordon said that ‘when we agree something is off-the-record, we respect that agreement'.
Bloomberg has not published any off-the-record portions of our interview with Donald Trump, and we have not authorized the release of any off-the-record material. When we agree that something is off the record, we respect that agreement.— Craig Gordon (@dcraiggordon) September 2, 2018
But the fact remains that those remarks have ended up in the media.
There is, it has to be said, some speculation that Mr Trump may have leaked his own 'off-the-record' comments.
Nevertheless, it still raises the issues of whether spokespeople should ever go 'off-the-record' - something which regularly comes up on our media training courses.
And our advice is the same: you shouldn’t.
One of the key issues is that going ‘off-the-record’ means different things to different people, meaning it can trip up even really experienced spokespeople.
For some people it means that the information you give to a journalist can be directly used as long as they don’t attribute it to anyone. This is why ‘a source’ or ‘an insider’ are sometimes quoted in stories.
However, the phrase can also refer to information that is given to a reporter to help them put their story in context. The journalist is trusted not to use the information directly or reveal the source. This approach is sometimes used by experienced media relations and PR professionals to put a reactive media enquiry into context, but only when they have a strong relationship with the reporter.
And these days the additional information they provide is likely to have already been signed off by their organisation as ‘lines to take’ in response to journalists.
But the crucial thing with both definitions is that ‘off-the-record’ has no legal significance. It is purely a matter of trust between spokesperson and reporter.
And it is worth considering whether you can ever truly be ‘off-the-record’ if a reporter is armed with a notebook, Smartphone voice recorder, microphone or TV camera. There may even be other people in the room.
Ultimately, the advice on our media training courses is that a spokesperson should assume that everything they tell a journalist could appear in the news and be attributed to them. If they are not comfortable having something attributed to them, then they shouldn’t say it at all.
If you find yourself in a position, just like Mr Trump, where you are complaining that something you said ‘off-the-record’ has been reported, then the damage has already been done.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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