Okay, So You’ll Only Talk “Off the Record”

Television-Wall-757447Not everyone takes PR 101 or Journalism 101 in college and perhaps for that reason there is often confusion in the PR profession and even journalism circles about what terms like “Exclusive” and “Deep Background” mean. Add bloggers into the mix, and “On the Record,” “On Background,” “On Deep Background” and “Off the Record” are open to interpretation.

Next time you sit down to be interviewed by The New York Times or to interview someone for your blog, establish the ground rules and clarify what these terms mean to the interviewer if they come up. Just because you state “this is off the record,” don’t assume you are both in agreement. Make sure the reporter or blogger gives you a verbal okay before proceeding. Far too often the interviewee says too much before discussing the ground rules. Following a remark that is intended to be confidential with a “by the way that’s off the record” is a risky proposition. You will be fortunate if there is any negotiation at that point. It’s far better to say if you will agree not to attribute this to me or my company I can give you more details.”

Here is my down and dirty little guide to these often misunderstood interview terms:

  • On Background/Background Only:
    What this officially means is that you Mr/Ms Reporter can use this
    information as context for your story. You may attibute it to “a
    source,” but please don’t name me. This can backfire if you neglect to
    clarify that the reporter should not mention your company name, title
    or department either. Imagine how transparent it would be if the
    reporter wrote “according to a source in the marketing department at
    JAG Wire Group.” So don’t leave this open to interpretation. Always,
    always, always, agree on what the terms mean if you choose to use them.
  • On Deep Background:
    This describes a situation where you have inside knowledge and verify
    information that a reporter has already gathered, but in order for that
    reporter to use and attribute it to a source the reporter must find
    others who can also verify it. In other words it is not to be
    attributed to you even as “a source.” In Groping for Ethics in Journalism by Ron F. Smith, Smith says “the term ‘deep background sources’ was invented by Washington Post reporters during the Watergate investigation. Deep Throat was a deep background source.”
  • Not for Attribution:
    Use this when you would prefer that your disclosure be attributed in
    the most general terms to “a government source said,” or “according to a reliable source in the defense industry.”
  • Off the Record:
    Rule number one; don’t talk “off the record” unless you want the
    information to get out to the public in some form. The term officially
    means don’t publish this information, but it’s open to interpretation
    beyond that. Some people use it when they mean what I am about to say is confidential and for your background only and others might mean you can use it once my own expos√© comes out. Remember that reporters and bloggers are there for a story (not gossip and idle chitchat). When tipped off to a juicy piece of news or an interesting twist to the official corporate “position,” any reporter worth his/her salt will find a way to pursue that story and find people who will speak about it on the record. Most bloggers and many journalists will not agree to an interview off the record unless it provides them with valuable insights they can pursue. So if you don’t want this information to see the light of day, keep it under your hat. Or perhaps you really mean “not for attribution.”
  • Exclusive: Once your press release goes out over a news distribution service such as BusinessWire or PR Newswire — and lands all over the Web on syndicated news sites — it’s unlikely you will interest a reporter in a one-on-interview unless, of course, you are a Google or Microsoft behemoth or have another angle. One PR strategy is to pitch an exclusive interview to a key publication. If they bite then you give them — and only them — the news to publish. Hey, it works for Barbara Walters!
  • No Comment: Never say “no comment.” It leaves you sounding guilty as H.E.DoubleToothpicks.

Here is an interesting read from a reporter’s perspective: : “Halperin/Heilemann Deep Background” And The Sourcing Talmud (The Atlantic)

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