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3 tips for using the phrase “off the record”

By Wendy Bulawa Agudelo

Off the record isn't the safety net you think it is.

When Anthony Scaramucci took the helm as White House communications director, he captivated the media. His interviews and public conversations contained unexpected, controversial commentary alongside colorful language that wasn’t particularly suited for all. Many media pundits scratched their heads at the absence of media relations protocol and were surprised at his ill-mannered bluntness. Some believed that, had Scaramucci invoked the phrase “off-the-record,” he could have delivered information to reporters any way he wished without coming across to the public as inept in media relations.

So, what exactly does “off the record” mean?

Simply put, “off the record” is a phrase that sources use before providing not-for-publication contextual, private or background information to journalists.

Should you use this phrase during an interview?

Axia Public Relations CEO Jason Mudd, who is a former journalist, encourages clients to treat all media interviews as “on the record” unless they’re amid serious crisis. The reason is because journalists, while operating with a code of ethics, are able to decide for themselves how to handle information you share off the record. The basis of their decision is often tied to consequences or potential fallout for reporting sensitive information. Staying on the record (and therefore only sharing information you are comfortable making public) is a natural buffer. However, should a situation arise when you consider going off the record, follow these three tips:

  1. Discuss what “off the record” means to the reporter(s).

It’s best to understand what “off the record” means to each reporter. In doing so, you acknowledge that the reporter sets the rules, while also holding him or her accountable.

  1. Understand rules of engagement.

Before you share information that you want off the record, tell the reporter explicitly using those three words. Then, wait for a response. If the reporter agrees (and stops writing/typing or turns off his or her recorder/camera), you may proceed. If the journalist doesn’t agree, understand that anything you divulge may appear in a future story (with attribution). Be forewarned that you cannot share substantive information and then declare it off the record. At that point, it’s too late and most reporters will not honor your request, especially if the information is highly newsworthy. Finally, for incredibly sensitive tips, some journalists will be willing to take entire interviews off the record and then negotiate with you to cherry-pick specifics you both agree can go back on the record.

  1. Remember “off the record” is not a safeguard.

Should you go off the record, understand that – especially in this era of fake news – tenacious reporters are trained to investigate and corroborate information. While you may have shared a tip or information off the record, reporters will likely find a way to ensure the credibility of the facts. Most will avoid allowing their research to trace back to a confidential source, however, once hooked, they won’t let go until they’ve reeled in the fish.

Journalists will do all they can to establish a stable of trusted sources. Those individuals regularly share confidential information that differentiates a viral news report from a run-of-the-mill news brief. Before going off the record, consult with a communications professional to best understand this tool as well as how to develop solid relationships with the media so that, one day, you may become one of their valued sources. For more tips on working with journalists, download Axia’s e-book Learn Media Relations from the Media today.

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Wendy-color.jpgWendy Bulawa Agudelo has nearly 20 years of experience in technology, business, consumer and nonprofit public relations. She serves on the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress PR Task Force and is a culinary enthusiast and champion for the special needs community. Wendy has worked for Axia Public Relations since September 2014. Learn more about Wendy Bulawa Agudelo. Connect with Axia on Twitter @axiapr or tell us what you think in the comments below.







Featured image credit: 123rf.com

Topics: media relations, public relations

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