I’ve written about being off the record before, but the topic has come up a number of times over the last couple weeks and I believe the topic and the questions that accompany it bear repeating.
Over the course of an interview the person being interviewed is often asked a question they can easily answer, but for various reasons can’t or shouldn’t divulge certain information. Most of the time this is the result of an agreement or deal that is not yet finalized and, as a result, can’t be shared or announced. However, in the excitement of the moment and of being interviewed it doesn’t stop people from divulging the information anyway.
Usually what happens is the person blurts out or shares confidential information and then follows it up with, “That’s off the record, by the way.”
Well, guess what? It really isn’t off the record if you’ve told a reporter the information without prior agreement that it’s off the record. If you tell a reporter, or anybody else for that matter, something without a prior agreement or understanding that it’s off the record, it’s not off the record. Most of the time a reporter will agree to keep this information out of their report, but they don’t have to.
I advise my clients to avoid a scenario like this. It’s bad practice and one, that while most reporters will still honor the request even though no prior agreement was in place, only takes one time to muddle up even the best-laid plans. The most important thing to remember in any situation is that you’re always on the record. Even things you think aren’t related to an actual interview can be used or included in a media report. This includes materials sitting on your desk, photos on your office or your Facebook page, product or company strategy written on a white board and of course things you say to a reporter or others while the reporter is with you.
If a situation arises where you want to go off the record, coordinate this sharing of information in advance. As a PR person, I always recommend that you include your PR person in any interview. It doesn’t matter if it’s a phone interview, face-to-face interview or a broadcast interview. This allows you to have a second person or witness in the room to vouch for what was or was not said. It also allows the PR person to be the bad guy and get, or keep, the interview on track in the event that the reporter takes the interview in an improper or wayward direction.
Additionally, if you want to go off the record to be able to provide background or context to what you’re saying, your PR person is the best person to handle this properly. If the situation arises, here’s the best way to handle it:
- Tell your PR person you have something you want or need to share that needs to be off the record.
- From here, your PR representative should tell the reporter, “We’ve got something we want to share but it needs to be off the record. DO you agree to that?
- If the reporter says yes, then you can proceed to share the information.
- Once you’ve shared the information and answered questions related to that topic, your PR representative should then tell the reporter something along the lines of, “Ok, we’re back on the record,” and the interview can continue.
Once you agree with the reporter that you’re back on the record, everything from that point on is fair game for inclusion in any reporting that occurs as a result of the interview. In most instances, I recommend you avoid going off the record. If you have something that is off the record or can’t be shared at that particular moment, it gives you a reason to go back to the reporter at a later date for a separate interview or coverage opportunity.
I’ve seen it too many times where a client has divulged confidential information and tried to go back and say, “that was off the record, by the way.” In most instances the reporters were fine with that and agreed to keep the information of the record, but there have been plenty of times where the reporter has not agreed to that and used the information as part of their report. Clients were upset by this and felt like they had been burned, but the reporter did nothing wrong.
The best policy is to remember you’re always on the record. If you don’t want something to be reported, don’t tell a reporter.