In every media training session I’ve run I’ve made it clear that there is no such thing as “off the record”. If you’re talking to journalists, why would you say something you don’t want the readers or viewers to know?
Mostly the public relations executive in the room nods sagely and agrees with me. Not last week, however. I was training (my clients are always confidential unless they specifically allow otherwise so I won’t name them) somewhere in London and I made the usual point.
The client squirmed. They were in security software and services, they explained (I knew that, I’d been listening). So of course they couldn’t name their clients, no matter how journalists asked. However, media training principles or not, they’d still offer journalists off-the-record briefings from time to time.
The reasoning was simple. Journalists are career writers rather than, say, security experts. And they – I should say “we” – get a lot of press releases and leads from purported experts. The big secret is that we aren’t always in a position to tell the good stuff from the chaff.
So on occasion, journalists call or maybe even come in to this organisation for a “deep background briefing”. The terms are straightforward; the company can’t be seen criticising a client or prospect for incompetence so the journalist can’t name or quote them. They can, however, leave the room better informed than they were and with a definite idea about what’s happened beyond the marketing froth; in fact sometimes they need help with determining whether something is a story at all.
That’s just about my favourite sort of media training session. I have over a quarter of a century’s experience in the press and I enjoy sharing it, but the very best sessions are the ones that prod me into thinking a bit more carefully and questioning my own preconceptions.
Media training principles
I’d still stand by “no such thing as off the record” as a general principle. If you don’t know me, you don’t know how reliable I am, whether by design or plain disorganisation, so you don’t know how “off the record” I’m actually going to be (here’s another entry on the subject). But I get that there can be exceptions, and some of them can be pretty important.
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