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Final Watergate revelation prompts questions for potential anonymous sources (Cover story originally published in Public Relations Tactics, July 2005)

When I was a journalism student at the University of Colorado, All the President’s Men was required reading. The notion that a couple persistent reporters could unravel a White House conspiracy and help unseat the most powerful man in the world was exhilarating.

As a public relations counselor and media interview trainer, I caution clients never to go off-the-record unless they can live with the possibility that they won’t remain anonymous.

Hopefully, the revelation that W. Mark Felt was Watergate’s “Deep Throat” will not prompt others to grow complacent about providing background information to journalists. Unless the source and reporter go to the trouble of establishing a clear set of ground rules, providing non-attributable information is fraught with danger for both the individual and the organization.

No Common Definition

Many journalists and public relations practitioners agree that there are varying degrees of anonymity. Common terms used include “deep background,” “background,” “not for attribution,” and “off the record.” What these terms mean, how they differ and how they are implemented is up to the individual or their media outlet.

A terrific guide is The Washington Post’s Policies on Sources, Quotations, Attribution and Datelines, which is paraphrased below:

On the record: Information that is fully attributable.

Background: Also called “not for attribution,” is information that can be attributed to a vaguely referenced source.

Deep Background: Information that is not to be attributed in any way. The Washington Post calls this a “tricky category” and encourages reporters to avoid it if possible.

Off-the-record: Frequently misused, this is conservatively interpreted as information that is not to be used in any way. Interestingly, the Washington Post urges reporters not to listen to off-the-record information, since it can restrict their ability to gather information about a story.

For Guidance: A less common term, but the basis for the relationship between Felt and Woodward and Bernstein, this is information to prompt further reporting on the understanding that it will not be used as the basis for a story. Felt helped Woodward and Bernstein know whether their investigation was on the right track.

Misunderstandings Common

Even Bob Woodward, who has been heralded for his loyalty and high standards in dealing with Felt, is not immune to crossing wires with his anonymous sources.

In a deposition in the Clinton “Filegate” case, Jane Sherburne, a former White House lawyer, claimed Bob Woodward violated a source agreement with her. Sherburne was quoted in Woodward’s book, Shadow, despite her stipulation that Woodward keep her comments off the record. While Sherburne clearly felt wronged, the deposition revealed the pitfalls of being an anonymous source.

Sherburne had no written agreement, no specific outline of the rules of engagement and did not record the conversation.

The deposition indicates that after interviewing Sherburne, Woodward found other sources to corroborate her comments. This “triangulation” – getting at least two others to substantiate Sherburne’s account – was enough for Woodward to use Sherburne’s quotes and attribute them to her.

This is the same man who refused to reveal the identity of Deep Throat for more than 30 years. Whether Woodward’s action was justified, it points to a simple fact that should keep all sources on alert: reporters care a lot more about the story than about the person telling it.

Minimize the Risks

Providing information that is anything other than on-the-record can ruin a career or harm an organization’s reputation. While many journalists are trustworthy and would go to great lengths to protect their sources, they also can be very busy and occasionally make mistakes. Here are a few tips to minimize the risks:

  • Never provide background information about something that can be harmful to your organization. Any information provided to journalists should go through the same vetting process – even if it is intended to be not for attribution.
  • Involve public relations counsel in negotiations. Having a third party involved can help clarify what information can be used with attribution and minimize the need to go on background.
  • Define all aspects of how your information can be used. Instead of relying on blanket terms that can easily be misconstrued, describe the exact wording of how you want the attribution to read. Is “a company spokesman” acceptable? Or “a source close to the company”?
  • Always assume you are on-the-record, regardless of the agreement you’ve negotiated. Consider the consequences of having your comments attributed to you or your organization and, if they can be harmful, don’t do it.
  • Choose your opportunities carefully. If you haven’t developed a close working relationship with the reporter or the news outlet, you are more likely to get burned.

The end of the mystery surrounding Watergate’s “Deep Throat” has spurred a healthy discussion about the necessity and the dangers of relying on sources who require anonymity. In almost every case, the risks for the source outweigh any potential benefits.

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Dan Keeney, APR, is president of Texas-based DPK Public Relations (www.keeneypr.com), which prepares sources for media interviews as part of its full range of public relations services.

Dan Keeney
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Author: Dan Keeney
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