Tech Workers: Nothing is Off the Record

media coaching

With all of the recent media attention on Silicon Valley, layoffs, economic troubles and oftentimes rogue employees talking to reporters, I came across something called the Tech Worker Handbook, which apparently is an online guide to help tech workers navigate media relations, legal issues, surveillance, and telling their own stories to the media or others.

What caught my attention was the section called, Working with the Press.

Before getting into details, I need to share something from my own media training program. I have a slide that reminds session attendees of two rules for media interaction.

Rule #1: Nothing is off the Record.

Rule #2: See Rule #1.

It’s that simple. There is absolutely no circumstance where a reporter is legally bound to honor any confidentiality with you. Unless a reporter specifically signs something akin to a non-disclosure agreement, that reporter has no obligation to take direction from you.

More to the point, by trying to dictate what a reporter can and cannot report, you greatly increase the likelihood of seeing something you or your organization said or did in the media.

This is not to say, you can never ask a reporter to honor a confidence, an embargo, an exclusive or other such arrangement. You can do this. It’s done all the time. But the only reason it happens is because the source has some leverage over the reporter.

No matter who’s in the Oval Office, the president’s people have leverage over the White House press corps in many respects. If reporters anger the wrong people in the White House, they can be denied access, denied interviews, denied scoops, and find themselves a low priority for breaking news. This can make individual reporters look bad within their own organizations. And it can marginalize entire media outlets.

Tech workers usually don’t have this sort of leverage. So, if you’re a tech worker, my simple advice is don’t believe anyone who tells you that you are in the driver’s seat and can expect reporters to honor the following.

On Background

The Tech Worker Handbook says, “You can talk to a reporter ‘on background,’ meaning the reporter can use your information but cannot attribute it to you. Speaking on deep background means the reporter cannot publish the information you give them. They can use the information only for their general understanding of the issue.”

The truth is, you can try to do this, but it’s only a handshake agreement. It’s worth the paper it’s written on. You can talk to a reporter on background, but it’s always possible that reporter will use your information and attribute it to you. And there’s nothing you can do about it except refuse to talk to that reporter in the future.


The Handbook accurately describes an embargo as an, “Agreement with a journalist or media outlet not to publish your information until an agreed-upon date and time.” The Handbook doesn’t give any inaccurate information on this, but what it doesn’t say is that reporters don’t legally have to honor embargoes. Once you give them a story or information, the matter is out of your control.

What’s On the Record and Off the Record 

Again, the Handbook provides good guidance that you should always understand the terms of your discussion with a reporter, and that it should be made clear to you and the reporter how you perceive the terms, be it “on the record” or “off the record.” But you can’t assume that simply because you insist something be off the record that it will be.

General Media Relations

The handbook also provides useful information and guidance on talking to lawyers as appropriate before talking to the media. You can try to negotiate the terms of an engagement with the reporter. But in the end, it’s all a matter of trust. Do you trust this reporter to keep his or her end of the bargain?

Have a question about how to work with the media? Get in touch. 

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