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New AP Policies Offer Reminder to Public Relations Pros: Go Off-The-Record At Your Own Risk

More fallout in the journalism and public relations communities from the CIA leak investigation that has revealed major problems in how journalists and news organizations manage anonymous sources. The Associated Press has issued an updated "Statement of News Values and Principles" that clarifies how it will deal with anonymous sources moving forward.

As a rule, DPK Public Relations recommends against providing information to journalists anonymously. As illustrated by this latest scandal in Washington, doing so places sources and the organization(s) they represent in significant peril of being identified and having to deal with the unpleasant fallout. 

The rule we recommend following is that you should not make statements to journalists unless you are prepared to see them in print or on the air attributed to you and/or your organization.

Here are some excerpts from the AP''s Standards and Practices for Anonymous Sources:

Under AP''s rules, material from anonymous sources may be used only if:

  1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
  2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
  3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

Reporters who intend to use material from anonymous sources must get approval from their news manager before sending the story to the desk. The manager is responsible for vetting the material and making sure it meets AP guidelines. The manager must know the identity of the source, and is obligated, like the reporter, to keep the source''s identity confidential. Only after they are assured that the source material has been vetted should editors allow it to be transmitted.

For the public relations community and sources in general, the important take-away from that section is that no journalist with the AP can promise anonymity without first conferring with their manager. Therefore, it would be foolish to go off-the-record in the midst of an interview. The reporter would be under no constraints to honor your anonymity without the consent of his or her boss. 

The AP rules also will now seek to add context to a source''s decision to secure anonymity and, when anonymously sourced information is used, the story will explain the source''s reasoning. Here''s how it''s described:

Before agreeing to use anonymous source material, the reporter should ask how the source knows the information is accurate, ensuring that the source has direct knowledge. Reporters may not agree to a source''s request that AP not pursue additional comment or information.

...We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it’s relevant, we must describe the source''s motive for disclosing the information. If the story hinges on documents, as opposed to interviews, the reporter must describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible.

The public relations community may find that one of the most useful parts of the new AP rules is its definition of the various levels of anonymity. As we described in an earlier article on anonymous sources, DPK Public Relations strongly recommends that before any interview in which any degree of anonymity is expected, there should be a discussion in which the ground rules are set explicitly. In fact, we strongly recommend drafting a letter of agreement that lays out specifically what the rules of engagement are and how the source will be referenced. Now, given that AP will also describe in greater detail the rationale for the source being anonymous, we recommend coming to clear agreement on THAT element as well prior to providing any information.

These are the AP’s definitions:

  • On the record. The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.
  • Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication.
  • Background. The information can be published
    but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. AP reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record. These background briefings have become routine in many venues, especially with government officials.
  • Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.

If you believe your organization''s spokespersons need to brush up on how to deal with journalists, you may want to consider DPK Public Relations'' Media Interview Skills Training. Call us at 214-432-7556 for more information.

Dan Keeney
(832) 467-2904
(832) 467-2909
Author: Dan Keeney
Phone: (832) 467-2904
Fax: (832) 467-2909
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