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A supposedly ‘off-the-record’ dinner has led to an abrupt and unceremonious departure.
Donald Trump’s personal assistant Madeleine Westerhout left the White House late last week after sharing several personal details about the president and his family with reporters during an 'off-the-record' dinner.
According to reports, Ms Westerhout spoke about Mr Tump’s eating habits, claimed he was unwilling to be photographed with his daughter Tiffany as he felt she was overweight, and spoke about his son Barron.
She also reportedly told journalists that the President ‘couldn’t pick Tiffany out of a crowd’.
The unguarded and embarrassing comments were made a fortnight ago and got back to Mr Trump last week, leading to Ms Westerhout’s departure on Thursday.
While Madeleine Westerhout has a fully enforceable confidentiality agreement, she is a very good person and I don’t think there would ever be reason to use it. She called me yesterday to apologize, had a bad night. I fully understood and forgave her! I love Tiffany, doing great!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 31, 2019
Mr Trump described the comments as ‘hurtful’ and added that Tiffany was a ‘wonderful person’. He said: “She’s a great student. She’s a great person… Tiffany is great. I love Tiffany.”
We always knew it would come to Trump insisting "I love Tiffany" to reporters on the lawn of the White House. pic.twitter.com/74a9dRNQi6— Matt Wilstein (@mattwilstein) August 30, 2019
He also criticised the media, saying: “I think the press is very dishonest because it was supposed to be off-the-record”. He later added that the “press breaks off-the record all the time.”
The row will undoubtedly add to the feelings of mistrust about the media in the Trump administration.
But what can others learn from it?
Well, it is another reminder for spokespeople that ‘off-the-record’ is a dangerous and complicated area for spokespeople and anyone in high-profile positions.
On our media training courses, we advise that spokespeople should not go ‘off-the-record’. It is difficult terrain which even experienced spokespeople struggle to navigate.
One of the key issues with it is that it means different things to different people.
For some, it means 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.
It is also worth considering whether you can ever really be ‘off-the-record’ when a reporter will have either a notebook, Smartphone voice recorder, microphone or TV camera.
But perhaps the biggest issue with ‘off-the-record’ is it has no legal significance – it is purely a matter of trust between you and the reporter.
The advice we give on our media training courses is to assume that everything you tell a journalist could appear in the news itself and be attributed to you.
If you’re not comfortable having something attributed to you, don’t say it.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the latest episode is lessons do not appear to be learnt.
In 2017 White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci resigned following an infamous interview with The New Yorker, in which he suggested 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.
He subsequently said: “Most of what I said was humorous and joking. Legally, it may have been on-the-record, but the spirit of it was off.”
And last year, the President found himself in the middle of an ‘off-the-record’ storm after comments made in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News during ongoing trade talks with Canada were leaked.
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
But they are not alone – there have been countless cases in the UK where people have said things to journalists – potentially in a light-hearted fashion – and it has ended up being reported.
In our view, if you find yourself complaining about the coverage of something you said ‘off-the-record, then the damage has already been done.
Why take that risk?
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.
Click here to find out more about our bespoke journalist-led media training courses.
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