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Media Training: Three Reasons to (Almost) Always Stay On-The-Record

By Brad Phillips
Posted Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The words are pop culture heroes.

Movies such as “The Insider,” books like “All The President’s Men” and television series including “The West Wing” have immortalized them.

“On-the-record,” “on background,” “on deep background” and “off-the-record” are celebrity phrases, used regularly as shorthand to represent the mysteries of the journalism underworld.

In reality, these words aren’t used all that frequently in newsrooms; moreover, they’re not particularly helpful. Unless you’re a whistleblower or working on sensitive issues at the highest levels of government, it is almost always better to remain “on-the-record,” meaning that everything you say can be published and attributed to you.

As simple as this basic rule may seem, spokespeople regularly get coaxed into saying more than they intended. They may become comfortable with a reporter, decide to trust the wrong journalist, or develop the mistaken belief that a member of the press has agreed to their terms. It often backfires, with the interviewee facing an unwelcome dose of public scorn when the story hits.

Here are three reasons you should (almost) always stay on-the-record:

1) Definitions Vary – Different news organizations – and different reporters within those news organizations – define terms such as, “on background” and “off-the-record” differently. A simple Internet search reveals the problem – to some news organizations, off-the-record means the reporter can’t mention your interview to even her mother, and to others, it means that your comments can be printed anonymously with the corroboration of just one other source. Without shared agreement on what the terms even mean, agreeing to an interview as anything other than on-the-record is a crapshoot.

2) Agreement Breeds Confusion – In 2002, Washington Post reporter Sally Squires interviewed Gary Taubes, an author who had written a controversial article for The New York Times Magazine challenging the accepted wisdom about the role of dietary fat in weight gain. Before agreeing to the interview, Taubes insisted that he have final approval of his quotes before they were allowed to run – in other words, that his comments were off-the-record until further notice. Ms. Squires agreed – or so he thought – so he was shocked and embarrassed when his overly candid remarks were printed. Far from being unusual, the ambiguity of agreements between reporter and source often leads to mismatched expectations.

3) “Official” Interviews Don’t Exist – Many interviewees think they are on-the-record during the “official” interview, but off-the-record before and after. In fact, anything said in the presence of a reporter is quotable, including the off-handed remarks made at last night’s dinner party.

In August 1984, for example, President Ronald Reagan famously leaned into a microphone for a sound check just prior to his weekly radio address. Joking around with those gathered in the room, Reagan quipped “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Even though the comments weren’t broadcast live, the microphone was on and two news networks recorded them. They almost immediately broadcast the comments, which they clearly deemed newsworthy in the midst of the Cold War.

The incident sparked international outrage, with the West German government pouncing on Reagan’s comments as a sign of his ill will.

White House Spokesman Larry Speakes claimed that the news organizations acted irresponsibly since any remark made before the official radio address was “off-the-record.” However, since the journalists didn’t agree to that condition in advance, they had every right to air it.

To be sure, there are occasionally good reasons to leave the safety of an on-the-record conversation. Instances of corruption or fraud, for example, can be leaked to a reporter in an attempt to hold public officials or executives accountable. But do yourself a favor. If you’re unclear of the rules or unfamiliar with the reporter, get a professional opinion before proceeding. It might save your “off-the-record” comments from appearing on tomorrow’s front page.

About the Author
Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations (http://www.PhillipsMediaRelations.com). He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and also headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.