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'Off the record' - does it really work?

February, 2012

Many believe that verbally agreeing with a journalist that their comments will be ‘Off the record’ means they won’t be quoted, and therefore will be protected. However, that’s not the case in today’s 24/7 news world, and arguably never has been. Maxim’s Andy Rayfield, a former Assistant News Editor with PA News, and former Senior Editor at the Kent Messenger Group, considers the issue.

‘Off the record’ means the comment will not be attributed to an individual, but that doesn't mean the comments can’t or won’t be published.

We’ve all seen the press use the phrase: “A person/source close to the story told our reporter…” or seen comments attributed to a friend of the subject of a story. Those comments invariably came as a result of an off the record briefing or comment.

Protecting the source

A journalist will use off the record information to stand his or her story up, while protecting the source – although in many instances it doesn’t take a genius to work out just who has given those details to the reporter.

If you have a longstanding relationship with a journalist you trust and are prepared to give them background information, but don’t want the details to become public, make it abundantly clear to them that what you are telling them is strictly not for publication, rather than just off the record.

In those circumstances, a good reporter, armed with the information you have given them, will approach other sources in an attempt to get someone else to comment, either on or off the record.

However, the only way to guarantee that your comments will not appear in print or be broadcast is to not make them in front of a journalist in the first place.

Too often politicians and business people have wrongly assumed that just because the interviewer had stopped asking questions, the tape had been switched off, or stopped scribbling in their notepad, that they could speak freely with little risk their comments would appear on the night’s news or tomorrow’s front pages. So to avoid that happening, what should you do?

  • When soundchecking before a taped or live interview keep it simple and don't joke: The adrenalin will be pumping as the start of the interview gets ever closer, but the last thing you must do is make a joke when checking the sound levels as it’s likely that the tape will be rolling. Keep it to name, title and company – spelling any difficult names to help when they come to do any captioning. If you want proof simply read about the hot water Ronald Reagan found himself in during the Cold War.
  • Confirm the interview is finished. Then thank the reporter for the interview and withdraw to a safe distance, out of earshot. This is especially important if the interview has been a tricky one and the reporter probed deeper than you expected. Golden rule: Never say anything to a reporter, or in the vicinity of a reporter, that you wouldn’t want to see repeated in the news.
  • When the interview is finished make sure the press can’t hear any subsequent conversation. If you have been talking on the telephone, whether landline or mobile, ensure you have properly hung up. If you have been speaking in person, don’t say anything to them as you leave them that you wouldn’t have done during the interview. Just remember: that was how Detective Columbo always caught out the murderer!
  • Temper your comments in public places: Remember with social media and mobile phones, everyone can be a reporter, so beaming ‘caught on tape’ comments, photos, and videos from an interview to anywhere in the world is now just a click away.

For advice on media management or training, contact Maxim.

posted in: advice, media relations, public relations, reputation management,

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