Many media trainers offer their trainees a simple and straightforward piece of advice: “Never go off the record.” Truthfully, I’ve also been known to offer that pearl of wisdom.
But I’ve moderated my stance over the past few years and no longer dispense that advice. There are times when going off the record (or on background) can be useful for spokespersons, even if doing so occasionally comes with significant risks (here are five rules for going off the record or on background).
But I saw another reason why going off the record can be a bad idea this week, and wanted to present the “don’t go off the record” side of the argument to you.
The website Buzzfeed attended a political conference recently that featured top-level Obama and Romney political consultants. The conference was supposed to be off the record until an “embargo” period passed, but take a look at how Buzzfeed got around that problem:
“Barack Obama’s campaign schooled Mitt Romney’s in November, something of which the Republicans who gathered at the quadrennial, off-the-record Harvard Institute of Politics Campaign Managers Conference were intensely aware. And while the proceedings of the event are under embargo until the institute releases audio transcripts of the proceedings, some participants shared their reactions.”
With that in mind, here are eight reasons you shouldn’t go off the record:
- 1. As Buzzfeed demonstrated, news organizations may use a clever workaround to technically honor an off the record agreement while actually still releasing information you didn’t want public.
- 2. Reporters may agree to go off the record during a part of your interview but accidentally confuse which parts of your interview were “on” and “off” the record and publish the wrong portions.
- 3. Different reporters define “off the record” and “on background” in different ways, so they may include something in a news story they thought they were allowed to.
- 4. Reporters may honor their “on background” commitment but identify you by a title or description that makes it obvious to the audience who their source was.
- 5. Reporters may resent that you ask them to go off the record instead of allowing them to identify you by name, which could affect the tone of your coverage.
- 6. Reporters may get overruled by their editors.
- 7. Reporters may get overruled by judges who threaten prison time unless they reveal their sources.
- 8. Reporters may use the information anyway.
A grateful tip o’ the hat to Political Wire.
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