Beware of speaking ‘off the record’

Written by Lahra Carey

Back when I was a working journalist, I was very clear in my own mind about what ‘off the record’ meant: it meant that I while I could report the story I had an obligation to protect my source.

I assumed all of my colleagues held the same view, so you can imagine my surprise years later when I found out how wrong I was and how differently some journalists interpret requests to stay ‘off the record’.

As a journalist, being the recipient of off-the-record information is a bit of a ‘double-edged sword’. It’s great to be handed a big important story but it’s frustrating to try and validate the information provided by off-the-record sources, which then require confirmation from an additional source before the story can be published.

Now that I work in PR – I realize that offering off-the-record information puts the source in a very vulnerable position, akin to standing naked in a crowd and hoping no one takes photographs and then publishes the photos.

Each year, we conduct a survey of editorial media gatekeepers including most of Australia’s more prominent producers, news editors/directors, and chiefs of staff. We interrogate these media professional’s perceptions of what constitutes ‘news’ as well as charting the changing priorities, practices and processes within the rapidly evolving landscape within Australia’s broadcast media industry.

The first time we conducted this survey I asked what off the record meant, and was gob-smacked at the range of responses I received. While nobody thought it was OK to simply use the information as if it was on the record, here are the results:

  • 38% thought that you could use the information if you verified it with another source
  • 33% took it to mean that the information couldn’t be used under any circumstances
  • 27% were under the impression that permission had been granted to use the information but the source needed to remain anonymous (I counted myself amongst this group), and;
  • A small number – just 2% – felt that if the story was important enough the ‘right to know’ trumped the request to stay ‘off the record’

As you can see, off the record is simply a matter of interpretation. If you’re going to invoke it, you had better be sure you’ve clarified what it means to you and the rules you’re prepared to play by…

Given the risks, the question becomes: are there ever times when speaking off-the-record is the best approach?

The answer is yes, but only under the following circumstances:

  • You’re providing a background briefing to a reporter who may not be familiar with the area or industry you are operating in;
  • The reporter clearly has the wrong end of the stick and you need to provide correction and/or context to ensure that the story is interpreted correctly, or;
  • There’s no way that the story can be linked to you and you want to make it public.

Always be aware that, no matter how much you may trust the reporter, journalists are not your friends… their job is to get the story.

I’ve known more than one reporter who’s chosen to burn a source rather than lose a front-page lead. Therefore, unless it falls into the categories above, avoiding speaking off-the-record altogether.

If you really need to, use a go-between in the form of a trusted PR professional/agency who knows the inner workings of the media.

At least then, if it all goes pear-shaped, the head that rolls won’t be yours!