There are three little words that, when improperly construed, can get an executive in a lot of trouble when talking to the media. What are they? “Off the record.”
Just exactly what does that mean? The phrase is one of the most misunderstood in journalism and is open to some degree of interpretation. As such, executives doing interviews with the press must make sure everyone at the table is crystal clear as to its meaning before any sensitive information is imparted.
The most popular definition is that it means the information a journalist is given in an interview cannot be included in the reporter’s article under any circumstances. The information is strictly for the journalist’s edification and for contextual purposes to help him/her understand the nuances of the story being reported. They can’t use it directly or indirectly. Period.
But not everyone agrees with that interpretation. Some reporters (and their editors) believe “off the record” means they can use the information as long as they don’t attribute it directly to the person who is giving it to them. In other circles, that definition falls under going “on background” with the reporter. And that opens another door that could be troublesome. If a reporter does use the information, exactly how is it attributed, and to whom?
Some reporters say “according to a source” while others might attribute the information to “a source with direct knowledge of the situation.” And that leads to another potential pitfall—what if only three or four people have “direct knowledge of the situation”? Then it becomes possible to narrow down the possible source, and that can lead to finger pointing among the people being covered in the story. And that can damage business relationships. Another scenario occurs when the information is attributed to “an agency source” or “a company source”? Again, that can lead to the source being narrowed down and more easily identified.
The best course of action is to make the rules of engagement perfectly clear from the outset. If at any point in the interview a reporter asks to go off the record, or if the person being interview decides it’s best to go off the record for whatever reason, make sure each party defines the term immediately. If it is agreed that the information can be used, then both parties also must decide exactly how it will be attributed.
One final, crucial tip–always remember that all these negotiations must take place before any delicate information is given to a journalist. It’s exceedingly bad form and totally unfair to give a reporter an important piece of information and then tell him/her it’s off the record after the fact. That’s not the way the game is played and it’s the mark of a rank amateur.