When Is It Appropriate To Go “On Background?”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 16, 2012 – 6:19 AM

If you take a media training course, one of the first pieces of advice you’ll hear is this: Never, ever go “on background” with a reporter.

It’s a safe and often prudent piece of advice – after all, we’ve all seen spokespersons pay a hefty price for giving an “on background” interview that ended up naming the source in print.

But if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I don’t like easily dispensed platitudes. Media relations isn’t always so black and white, and there may indeed be times when speaking to reporters on background makes sense.

So here’s my question for you, and I’d really like your help with this one: When is it appropriate to speak to reporters on background? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Just so we’re all speaking the same language, you’ll find my definitions to four of the most commonly used journalism terms below (keeping in mind, of course, that different journalists interpret these terms differently):

Off-the-record: Strictly speaking, off-the-record means that the information you share with a reporter cannot be used in any way; rather, it is used solely to help the journalist have a more complete understanding of a news story. But some reporters may use the information if they can get a different source to confirm it.

On Background: The information provided by a source can be used, but the source cannot be named or quoted directly.

Not For Attribution: The information provided by a source may be used and the spokesperson may be quoted, but not by name. Instead, the quote will be attributed to an obscured source, such as a “Senior White House Official” or a “company director.” Sources can negotiate the manner in which they are described by the reporter.

On-The-Record: Unless you specify otherwise and gain the prior agreement of the reporter, assume that everything you say is on-the-record.

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Comments (7)

  1. By Keith Plunkett:

    This is a little more complicated when you begin to look at how media relationships are forged and maintained in different media markets. There are cultural and social differences in how these relationships are built, as well. I am in a small market and we see the same reporters over and over again. When I am working on a subject that has me dealing with a different set of journalists, I generally go to my trusted reporters at each media outlet and ask them to give me an introduction. At the very least, I almost always get directed to a person by name. When I can go to them with a reference from one of their colleagues, it allows the conversation to have a naturally comfortable starting point. In the end, the answer to this question of going “on background” all comes down to trust. It’s a simple answer. It’s working through the relationships to know who you can and can’t trust that’s difficult.

  2. By Mary Denihan:

    Keith is right about trust. Am also in a smaller market and it does make it easier to know who to trust. If you do not trust your gut with a reporter, listen to your gut.
    Also, look at your motivation for going on background. For example, In politics, it can be to hurt an opposing candidate. If your background is harmful, a journalist will remember that.

  3. By Patricia Smith:

    Going on background may be a useful way to provide a reporter with information that helps the reporter to construct a broader view of an issue, particularly when another party is publicly offering a narrow and/or slanted view of an issue.

  4. By DoubleA:

    I make two points to clients regarding off the record/on background (many reporters don’t distinguish between the two modes, so I don’t either):

    1) Off the record/on background is a two-party agreement; you’re not off the record, or on background, until the reporter agrees that you are. (In my former life as a reporter, I witnessed the governor’s budget director stand before a crowded news conference and insist, “OK everybody, we’re now off the record,” and then proceed to explain budget strategy. Amazingly, no reporter objected and every reporter honored his comments as off the record. While no reporter objected to being off the record, you might argue they all implicitly agreed to being off the record, but I wouldn’t assume that. Unless they agree, you’re still on the record.)

    2) Travel at your own risk. There are no universal, hard and fast rules governing news reporting; various news outlets, and even various editors and reporters within individual outlets, arrive at their own rules. So, be advised that there always is risk associated with this tactic. (About two years ago, a reporter quoted me on the record from a conversation we had off the record. When I asked her why she quoted me, she acknowledged that we agreed to be off the record, but said that when I was still speaking to her 10 minutes later she didn’t realize we were still off the record, so she quoted me.)

  5. By Ted Flitton:

    Both off the record and background are challenging, and can be disatrous if something goes wrong.

    You must have a very defensible argument about why you employed the strategy you did as you may get into trouble with your executive team. The strategic need for this should be very clear and you must illustrate that proceeding as usual would have really cost your agency – I’ve found execs appreciate seeing or hearing a fictional headline and story that might result from playing it safe. If you can’t defend your actions you’ll be perceived as reckless, a cowboy or reveling in the chance to play Deep Throat a la Watergate. Not a good perception when you’re really trying to help your company.

    You need to have a very good relationshsip with the reporter(s) and a sense of trust already built up. Perhaps having used other strategies with the reporter that reply on trust and seeing that he/she has played by the rules you have agreed on is a good starting point. But all rules can go out the window with getting the scoop on a major story and trust can be broken. You can also ruin your reputation with some reporters if they suspect you are “rewarding” others with confidential information.

    Last, if you ever use either of these tactics you must be clear about the rules – “we are off the record until I say we are back on the record.” Also, make it clear this going off the record or on background is not your usual manner of doing things – having a reporter realize the risk you’re taking to help them may make them understand that this is a necessary, one-time action.

  6. By Leslie Gottlieb:

    I think relationship with the reporter is key. I will go “on background” and occasionally “not for attribution.” It depends on the sensitivity of the topic to my company/organization and the relationship I have with the reporter.

  7. By John Nemo:

    Very simple – it all depends upon your relationship with the reporter and if you trust him/her and vice-versa. Relationships are key. Reporters hate being lied to and sources hate being “outed” or burned. Simple rules to live by.

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