Why PR Professionals should never "go off the record"

Posted by wendyama


In today's digital age, the tendency to fess up is akin to getting a second helping of desert. No one plans on it, but everyone does it. Therefore, it comes as a surprise that an old fashioned term like "off the record" still means something.

Take an example from the last presidential election. Samantha Power, one of Obama's advisors, referred to Hillary Clinton as a “monster” while being interviewed by a Scottish reporter.  She had supposedly gone off the record but only after she had disparaged Clinton. Unfortunately for her, Power forgot the most important aspect of the "off the record" rule: first, establish some ground rules. With that being said, many of the U.S. journalism establishments were outraged at the incident. They felt that a journalist must abide by an “off the record” request, even if it were given later. "Off the record," refers to the traditional practice in journalism where select information can't be printed or attributed to the interviewee. It's occasionally confused with talking on background (providing info which can be printed without a requirement for attribution).

Although a good amount of journalists accept these three little words, PR professionals are largely put off by the phrase. This is due to the fact that many of us have been burned by it. PR coordinator Timothy Vassilakos puts it nicely: “Off the record exists until you get burned once."

As many PR pros have noticed (take a look at the interesting conversation on LinkedIn about this topic), there's an implicit debate between the journalists and the PR professionals. Journalists, or at least the driven, stop-at-nothing-to-get-the-story ones, see themselves as truth seekers. They go to great lengths to unearth the "real story", not the superficial, glossy one. In comparison, PR folks are most interested in looks, branding, and building relationships. In other words, they want to put their client in the most favorable light without lying. Think of it like this: Journalists want to yank the toupee off, so to speak; the PR person wants to stick it back on.

Yet bear in mind that there are always complications and fuzzy, grey areas. From our experience in the B2B PR field, off the record generally works if you have a good relationship with the reporter and can really trust him or her. Ultimately though, you are always taking a risk that your "off the record" statements may end up in print.

Ed Shapson, PR professional, asserts that, "It's a mighty big gamble. You don’t want to see some statement printed in tomorrow’s newspaper or aired on the evening news? Then don’t make it!" Well put, Ed.

At this point you may be asking yourself, “why do it?” In addition to the human tendency to want to spill the beans, it can also function as a method of building relationships with reporters. However, as Cosmin Patlagenurisks remarks in the conversation on LinkedIn, there are much better ways to develop relationships: "Keep your word, deliver on time, say you can't when you can't, be there when you're needed."

Here are a few questions to think about as you consider going off the record:

  • What’s might occur if the reporter fails to honor your off-the-record request and prints it instead? What could the consequences be?

  • What (if anything) are you gaining by going off the record?

  • Did you purposefully set the ground rules? In other words, did you define “off the record” and what that entails? I say this because a reporter from The New York Times recently proposed a different definition of off the record than the commonly accepted one.

You may see what I’m trying get at here. Unless you have an excellent reason for going “off the record” -- and you’re absolutely positive you can trust the journalist – it may be wiser to keep your lips sealed. Remaining silent is the safest approach to guarantee that your private thoughts won't be discovered by the general public.

Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Mar 29, 2012

Wendy Marx

Wendy Marx is the founder and president of Marx Communications, a boutique inbound marketing and public relations agency. An award-winning B2B public relations pro, she has helped many small- & medium-sized firms (SMBs) become well-known industry brands and transform their businesses, going from Anonymity to Industry Icon™.

Her business articles have appeared in The New York Times, InformationWeek, Inc., Advertising Age, & Fast Company, among other outlets. 

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