Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant
I’ve never been a fan of off-the-record comments, both as a journalists and PR practitioner. As a journalist, whenever some one would say “this is off-the-record,” I would interrupt and say, “If it’s not on the record, don’t tell me because it might tie my hands from using the same information from other people.” As a PR practitioner, I tell clients before an interview that there is no sure thing as off the record. (News Flash: People lie.)
A prime example occurred on January 9, the day after President Trump’s speech on border security, when a supposedly off- the-record conversation between the president and network anchors was reported extensively on TV and in print pubs.
The supposed off-the-record remarks reported that the president said his position regarding the wall had not changed. If the comments were reported prior to his speech, as they should have been in my opinion, the news would have dominated the coverage of the president’s non-news TV show. Who leaked the remarks after his TV presentation? My guess the White House. (That episode is another reason why as a reporter I was against off-the-record information: It’s too easy to be duped.)
When I was a journalist, prior to transitioning to the public relations business as newspapers and wire services began to disappear, I would refuse invitations for off-the-record meetings. I would say, “My job is to report, not to keep secrets. Let me know when you want to be on the record.”
But close reporter colleagues of mine would disagree with me, arguing that attending off-the-record meetings gave them a better understanding of a situation. (I always felt that it was a public relations strategy to keep important information from being reported on or at least delayed.)
To me, that made little sense. A prime example of why I feel that way has been provided by Donald Trump. After the president’s insensitive and preposterous remarks about good people marching with neo-Nazi’s and other hate groups at Charlottesville, cable TV reporters quickly said that for some time GOP senators told them that they questioned Trump’s instincts and ability to lead the United States. Keeping the names of those senators off-the-record served no journalistic purpose. Instead, it lessened the legitimacy of the comments, which many Trump supporters said were fiction (because they were anonymous).
As a PR practitioner, I always advise clients prior to arranging meetings with reporters to not say anything that they do not want to see in a news story.
Here’s why I believe off-the-record statements are a bad idea for both the journalist and the PR person:
- Agreeing to honor “off-the-record” information, could stifle a reporter from using information even if it came from a source other than the interviewee or PR person. That could result in a strained relationship if the reporter believes the information might have been leaked by the agency to someone else. It’s even worse for the PR person. Offering off-the-record information ties your hands. You’re honor bound to respect the agreement, thus losing control of the information.
- To some reporters it might mean the information can be used in a manner making it difficult to identify the source or organization. Others might feel it’s okay to identify the organization but not the source. Some reporters might chop up the information and use it in several subsequent stories. In all cases the PR person has relinquished control over how or when the information will be used.
I’ve arranged hundreds of interviews during my public relations career (including media sessions with high-ranking government, corporate and Olympic officials and have never had a reporter ask me, or the person being interviewed, for off-the-record information. The great majority of reporters want to report and not be secret keepers. (Political pundits excepted, perhaps, but they hardly report breaking news. They seem to be more interested in having contacts in high places that can often play them like yo-yos.)
Before an interview, it is important to remind clients that anything they say to a reporter can be used in a story, even if they say this is off-the-record. And that the interview is never over. Remember the follow up stories.
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the