The problem with social media is that it follows you around. You say something once and you’re stuck with it – but that’s not unique to social media.
Years ago I was in my first job on a computer publication, called MicroScope (still running, now Web-exclusive…dark hair, a stone lighter, those were the days…) – and I called someone up to find out some stuff.
He answered and seemed very helpful. And when we published, he complained.
I was very young and inexperienced. I was nervous about what I might have done. This would be about 1990, by the way, so at least his comment hadn’t spread like a bad smell as it would today. Nonetheless I was terrified. My then editor, the redoubtable John Lettice, called the PR person to find out what the problem was.
The PR person called John back. She was very embarrassed. She’d asked her client whether he’d actually come out with the comment in question, and his answer was: “Yes, but I was on the car phone rather than the office, so it doesn’t count.”
OK, some people are just wallies. It happens, I’ve been known to make a fool of myself by not knowing stuff in the past. Only yesterday I didn’t know my daughter’s slippers would melt in the tumble drier, and on Thursday I will have a visit from a washing machine engineer who will probably inform me that leaving metal collar stiffeners in shirts is a bad idea. See? Easily done.
My contact, though, needed to understand that if a journalist can hear you and has identified themselves as a reporter, you’re on the record. Eavesdropping or phone hacking are separate issues, but if someone has been clear that they are indeed a journalist and they’re talking to you in an official capacity, you’re on the record.
Some people try the “off the record” game. There are five reasons I can think of that this is a bad idea:
- You have no reason to trust me to keep your secrets
- You have no reason to assume I’m organised enough to remember what was off the record and what wasn’t
- You’re not paying me so there’s no reason I should participate in managing your announcement schedule
- It’s open to misinterpretation. You might think “off the record” means “don’t repeat it”, but if I (or more likely a younger journalist” assume you mean “don’t attribute this to me, but…” then it’s likely to see print/screen/podcast as “a source close to the company says…”
- Suppose you’re happy being “a source” but then someone is going to get sacked because this thing appeared in print or online. You think “It’s OK, I was off the record…” is going to save your job?
It’s far safer to assume, if you’re talking to a journalist, that they’re likely to repeat anything you say. It’s what we do and realistically it’s the only reason you should be speaking to us.
Do you need help preparing to speak to journalists? I’ve been coaching people since 2002 – drop me a note by clicking here or call 07973 278780.