Dancing at the Edge of the Off-the-Record Cliff
We always devote a portion of our Media Interview Skills Training sessions to a discussion about going “off-the-record” with journalists. Our recommendation is the same today as it was 20 years ago: there is no such thing as “off-the-record.” Think of it as a cliff for your career. You can dance at the edge of that cliff and think you are in control. But there are many forces at play that can send you right over the edge no matter how confident you are.
Splat. There goes your career.
If you say something, you should be prepared to see it attributed to you in print. Even if you have a relationship with a journalist, that journalist’s job is to get a good story and tell that story. If you expect them to do otherwise, you are suggesting that what you want and expect should trump the journalist doing what they are paid to do.
Good luck with that.
A story in this week’s Dallas Observer just about took my breath away because it so awfully illustrated the dangers of providing a journalist information that you believe to be “off the record.”
The story was, “Uber Is Upside Down When You Look at It Through the Eyes of John Barr,” by Jim Schutze. It reports on government relations activities of Yellow Cab to encourage the City of Dallas to enforce laws that would essentially preclude the Web-based transportation service, Uber, from competing with the city’s entrenched traditional Taxi industry.
“Barr often peppers his conversations with me with instructions, "This is off the record," and "That's on the record, you can print that," all of which I ignore in deep silence. So it's all on the record, most of it. We seem to get along anyway.”
Is that straightforward enough for you? If you are a spokesperson or a public relations person who is responsible for relationships with media covering your industry or community, those three sentences should serve as a slap in the forehead.
There is no such thing as “off-the-record.” If a journalist hears something or sees something, that information is fair game. It is possible they may not attribute the information to the person providing it, but they might use it in other ways, which can do even more harm to your organization.
How? Consider the Yellow Cab dispute with Uber. If Schutze had been willing to honor the off-the-record request, he could have still taken that information and gone to the Interim City Manager and read the quote to him without saying who it is and sought a comment.
Here’s how that conversation would go:
Reporter: I have a source who has asked not to be identified who is close to Yellow Cab who has admitted providing your office and the City Attorney copies of ordinances other cities have used to crack down on Uber.
Here’s what he told me verbatim:
"In the city of Dallas, they don't come in and say, 'Yeah, we'll take care of it, Boss, let's get it done.' They come in and give you 20 ways of why they can't do it, because if you're the kind of guy that goes in and sits down and can get something done, well, you aren't at the city of Dallas. A.C. Gonzalez to his credit, is. I said, 'What the hell's wrong with you? Let's get something done, damn it.”
I would like your thoughts about that.”
A.C. Gonzalez: “Ummmm.”
Do you think it’s a big mystery to A.C. Gonzalez who said that? Of course not. So why go off-the-record in the first place? If it’s information that you believe is needed to explain the situation, tell the story. If you’re worried that it might present your organization in a negative light, don’t say it! It is pretty simple, really.
If you don’t want it reported, don’t say it. If you say something that is interesting, compelling, impactful, controversial and/or flamboyant, expect it to be reported.
Photo by Amnesty International UK.