I can’t say I’m surprised PR people still think some things can be off the record when talking to reporters. Still, the whole issue of “off the record” is a mine field. Any PR person who continues to think there is such a thing as an off-the-record comment to reporter is simply lucky enough to have not stepped on that landmine … yet.
There is no such thing as an off-the-record comment to a reporter. No. Such. Thing.
Before talking about why this is the case, let’s talk about why the myth persists.
I’ve been in the PR business for decades, and the archaic practice of routinely giving reporters off-the-record information – and it remaining off the record – was history even before I started. There was a time when the good old boys in the press and the good old boys in the PR departments of politicians, corporations and agencies had gentlemen’s agreements on what they would and would not divulge. This went both ways.
But for as long as I can remember, the notion of trusting a reporter to keep a confidence has been a fool’s errand, and I’ve seen more than a few PR people crash and burn in the process.
The ‘Mad Men’ Era is Long Gone
Why? There is no good old boy network like there might have been during the “Mad Men” era. Reporters are judged on getting the stories and narratives their superiors want, not on how trusting their relationships are with the public relations community. If they get a tidbit of information that serves their purposes, and more specifically their narrative, it’s almost beyond their control not to run with it.
The main reason, however, it just doesn’t work is centered on leverage. If you, as the public relations pro, have no leverage over the reporter, you can’t automatically expect that reporter to keep a confidence. For example, if you represent the governor of your state, and you are the gatekeeper who provides all press access to such a powerful person, you do have enough leverage to selectively and carefully insist that something be off the record.
The only reason a reporter would honor it is so as not to lose access to the governor for future stories. Reporters have to believe that you will deny access in a heartbeat if they violate their end of the deal.
It Doesn’t Matter When or Where
But don’t kid yourself. There is always the chance that something you said to that reporter long ago will come back to haunt you. If the story is big enough, it’s not uncommon for reporters to dig back into their notes from years earlier and find comments that were made under an off-the-record agreement at the time. But now, all bets are off. Your words are fair game and could be published.
In my own experience, I’ve had several personal relationships with reporters. One with whom I went to college and we’re still good friends. Another who I would sit next to on the subway during our evening commute. Both covered stories in which I was intimately involved, and not for one minute did I drop my guard.
Even then, some things I’ve said in informal conversations with reporters have ended up in news articles, even though they clearly were not delivered in a formal interview setting. Fortunately, I have counted every word I’ve said to reporters at all times, knowing what I say could end up in the public domain.
If you handle media relations or interact with the media with any regularity, just know, no matter where you are and who you’re with, nothing is off the record. Ever.
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