If there’s one thing I could change about so, so many of the interviewees I’ve met over the years as a journalist then it’s the jack-the-lad thing of telling me something off the record.
So, who are your key customers, I ask. Well, we’re about to sign someone big, comes the reply. I can tell you off the record.
I find this peculiar. I’ve identified myself as a journalist, why would you want to tell me something I can’t repeat? To ingratiate yourself perhaps – although why anyone thinks I’m going to be shouting “whoopee, a story I can’t sell or use” is beyond me.
Here are some unpleasant truths about “off the record”. They are why I always advise my media training candidates against even thinking about it.
Nobody understands it correctly. Oh all right, that’s an exaggeration, but some people don’t. Many years ago I worked on a computer trade magazine. Someone once told me, when I asked them a question, whether they could go off the record. I agreed, assuming I could write the story with “sources close to the company said…” and was stunned when the bloke who’d told me every fact I’d printed called up and demanded to know the source. I told him I’d never disclose a source but since it was he who’d told me everything I’d make an exception. He was livid; to him, “off the record” meant (correctly I now believe) “don’t use it at all”. I’d assumed it meant “unattributable”, an arrangement with which other sources had always seemed comfortable.
The counter-example from years ago was when John Lennon told a journalist off the record that he was leaving the Beatles. The journalist didn’t report it and Lennon was livid when Paul McCartney came to the same decision and it was all over the press – Lennon phoned the journalist and asked why on earth he hadn’t reported? “It was off the record”, came the slightly weak response.
So, what do you understand by “off the record” – and are you positive the journalist understands the same thing?
I may not be trustworthy. You might think I’m a nice man. I probably am. But I’m a journalist and am hungry for stories so if you tell me something very important that’s off the record, I have a decision to make and it may not end up in your favour. Or there’s the other reason not to trust me; I might make an honest mistake and forget a particular comment or fact was off the record. Why would you assume otherwise?
I don’t work for you. This is the killer, for me anyway. I don’t actually work for you, so why would I want to help manage the timing of your news announcements? This isn’t supposed to sound aggressive (although it probably does) – but seriously, why am I expected effectively to manage your press schedule?
Those are only a handful of the reasons why, if I’m interviewing you and you say “well, off the record…” I’ll stop you and ask for something I can use instead. If we both know we were on the record the whole time, neither of us has to do any mental juggling – it might sound a bit strict but honestly, it’s a load easier in the end.
I always advise my media training candidates that “off the record” doesn’t exist. That way it won’t catch them out later.
Information on my media training service is here. My thanks to Kate Warwick of PR Savvy for reminding me to have a rant about this subject!