Should you ever talk ‘off the record’?

Imagine the scene. A smokey pub and someone walks in. They make their way to a table where a lone man sits. Sitting down they mumble a few words and a drink appears. After several minutes the man asks a question. The journalist says that this discussion is all ‘off the record’. Cue the music.

Notions of ‘off the record’ have been around for a long time and have become part of the image that the public has of journalists. These comments and back story can help fill copy and sometimes an unattributed quote will refer to a ‘source close to’.

But should there be any difference from ‘off the record’ and ‘on the record’? Does it help to clear muddy waters if all conversations and comment is taken as an official position.

Background briefings and chats help to provide context and develop relationships. However where do the boundaries lie between this and appearing in print or clarifying a story. Having a good working relationship with a journalist – based on providing good stories, reliable comment etc -should be the basis for establishing clear lines of communication where both parties know the lie of the land.

Last week I had a conversation with a journalist on a national newspaper. I sought to clarify an issue and then later on provided a quote relating to the story by email. I spoke to the journalist again when the story appeared as the issue I’d raised had not been addressed and he said that he had assumed that the phone conversation was ‘off the record’ whereas for me it was part of the discussion around the article.

I have always felt that you should only ever tell a journalist something that you’re happy might generate a story or has the potential to appear in print or help provide context for a piece on the radio or TV. If its not made clear what a journalist regards as background briefings versus comment on behalf of an organisation at the start of a conversation it becomes very difficult to know what will be used and whether information provided could alter the course of the story. This is where having a good mutual understanding with the media is so important for a press officer.

What is needed is a level playing field. We shouldn’t hide behind emailed quotes as the only way of providing a comment. Conversations on the phone should be an important part of the story gathering process otherwise the process of dialogue becomes very confusing.

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