Chris Harihar March 5, 2019 | 04:11:59

3 Rules For “Off the Record” Conversations

An “off-the-record” conversation with a journalist can sound mysterious or complex, but in PR it’s a very effective tool. Whether you’re providing candid background about a frustrating trend in your industry or trying to blunt the impact of a coming story about your organization, off-the-record interactions with reporters can deliver benefit for your brand, even though the impact may be indirect.

Off-the-record chats aren’t limited to politics or crisis management, although we often hear about them in that context. The New York Times posted a primer on the term after President Trump famously spoke about an off-the-record meeting he had with publisher A.G. Sulzburger, thus breaking the agreement. Beyond politics, however, such agreements can be useful for business and technology PR and storytelling. Yet as the Trump incident illustrates, the term is sometimes misunderstood, or it’s confused with other journalistic terms of art like “on background” or “deep background.” Even when the rules are clear, it can backfire when undertaken by the wrong people.

For those who need a refresher on what “off the record” means, check out Mashable’s overview. As they put it, when a conversation is off the record, “the understanding is that she or he will not only not quote you, but not even paraphrase what you’re saying. There will be no record, and no mention of this information anywhere.”

So, if the information can’t be used, why bother? Because off-the-record conversations can impart valuable knowledge that may guide a journalist in subsequent research. It can also help to shape future coverage in meaningful ways. But the reporter must refer to other sources and proof points. Think of it as pointing the journalist in the right direction and offering context for future inquiries.

With that in mind, here are three rules to keep in mind when having off the record conversations in 2019.

Get it in writing
Keep in mind, an off-the-record agreement is not legally binding. Rather, in the news world it’s a culturally accepted method of sourcing information. Reporters generally honor off-the-record agreements because they want to continue being trusted by sources to share worthwhile news and background. It’s also widely accepted practice among journalists and frowned upon in media organizations to burn sources.

With that said, mistakes can happen. Perhaps a journalist you spoke to on the phone recalled the conversation differently, or for some reason is backpedaling on what you believe was an agreed upon off-the-record exchange. This is why it’s smart to get the “agreement” in writing over email (“Can we chat off the record?”) in advance of any conversation so that you can refer to it later, if need be. And even after an exchange of emails, it’s best to reconfirm the off-the-record guidelines before speaking on the phone or in person. Needless to say, if you or a client speak publicly about the meeting, the agreement changes and the discussion becomes fair game.

Don’t go overboard
An off-the-record conversation is an opportunity for you to share essential information. It’s not an excuse to speak endlessly about every opinion or grudge because you’ve been granted immunity. Do not go overboard when engaging media off the record. Otherwise, you risk having the journalist go down the wrong path.

Consider the nuance here. Professor of Journalism Roy Greenslade has said: “A single ‘off the record’ quote is also qualitatively different from an ‘unattributable background briefing’, which usually involves a lengthy and considered statement by a source to a trusted journalist.” Length matters, and when sources provide too much information, things get fuzzy.

For example, a client might feel compelled to badmouth a competitor in an off -the-record conversation. This can backfire, with the media contact going to the competitor with seemingly independent questions that provoke a similar negative response. The result is a back-and-forth in which you and/or your organization is badmouthed. It’s a vicious cycle with no winners except for the reporter who will pick the best angle to run with later. (There is no loyalty here.) My advice: steer clear of hollow bloviating. When it’s off the record, get in and get out, and stick to the issue at hand.

Trust your PR team
The biggest mistake a brand makes when an executive wants to have an off-the-record conversation is that they go over their PR team’s head. Every PR person has seen this happen at some point. For whatever reason, the exec takes it upon his or herself to negotiate an off-the-record agreement and conversation with a contact rather than allowing the PR to do it. And more often than not, it fails.

Collectively, PR teams have negotiated hundreds of these types of conversations. Remember — an off-the-record dialogue is not a simple transaction. It’s a delicate negotiation that requires experience to understand the nuances that deliver success. Your PR team has shared experience that is absolutely critical to ensuring the best outcomes for your brand. (Assuming you have the appropriate PR team, that is.)
Going off the record is an invaluable strategy. But its execution can be complicated and involves navigating multiple sets of individual (reporter-specific) and cultural (industry) norms. What do you think about the practice? What tips have worked for you? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @chrisharihar.

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