Terms like “on the record” and “off the record” have been around in journalism for decades, dating back to the 1930s. It’s a classic line in film and television. Typically, it conjures an image of a journalist trying to get a story, often sensationalized, and made to seem like a common tactic when working with the media. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
We advise our clients that they are always on the record when talking to the press, except in very rare circumstances that have been mutually agreed upon in advance. Off the record or on background are the exception, not the rule. But, that seems to have flip-flopped recently. More and more tech companies and their communications advisors are going off the record as a default strategy. And in some extreme cases, they’re abusing the tool and irritating media, which is understandable.
Last year, The Verge updated its background policy to be clearer in how they work with communications professionals. The policy states “the default for communications professionals and people speaking to The Verge in an official capacity will be ‘on the record.’” This revised policy is not setting a new standard. It’s resetting the original, on-the-record standard.
To help clarify this murky situation, let’s first go back to the basics. Below, we define what each of these terms mean and when and how to use them.
What is Off the Record?
Off-the-record conversations are not to be used for publication. An example of an off-the-record conversation might be if a journalist catches wind of a crisis or a situation that could have legal implications in which the company isn’t able to address or acknowledge the situation. To persuade a company to give more information, a reporter might ask a spokesperson to address the situation off the record in an effort to confirm its validity. Alternatively, a company may ask to go off the record to educate a journalist on the facts of a situation and to persuade them against covering the crisis in the immediate moment or based on heresy. These situations are rare though and more applicable to political, legal, or entertainment news where rumors run rampant.
For an off-the-record conversation, it’s important to make one thing clear – it’s not a legally binding agreement. In journalism, this is an honor system. If you do decide to go off the record, there are a few recommended steps to protect yourself and your brand:
- Written confirmation. Ask the reporter to confirm in writing that the conversation will be off the record.
- Align on definitions. Does “off the record” mean the same thing to you as it does to them? Be extremely explicit when defining your parameters. Leave nothing open to interpretation.
- Verbal confirmation. At the start of the interview, ask the reporter to confirm the interview will be off the record and not recorded. (And don’t forget to reiterate the guidelines.)
If nothing is agreed upon in advance, you are presumed to be on the record.
What is On Background?
For conversations on background, your name and company are not published. However, your commentary can be paraphrased or you could be quoted verbatim as an unnamed source. The usual intent of on background is to provide context to help a reporter shape their story. This is a gray area. Why? You want to educate the reporter without you or your company being quoted or named.
Here, it’s beneficial for the reporter to understand your perspective, but that you can’t be tied to the topic. For example, a reporter might be looking to understand natural disaster science and risk modeling as connected to climate change. You have an expert on this topic but there’s a policy against commenting publicly on climate change. An on-background interview would allow your expert’s perspective to come through in the story. This helps build credibility in the eyes of that journalist for future stories – without being named in the article.
What is On the Record?
On the record means full attribution – your name, company, and words can be used for publication. This is a journalist’s preference, the default, and what you should assume in interviews.
To maintain a level of control in these scenarios, prep work is key. Before an interview, it’s important to understand the primary focus of the conversation and anticipate the information and key messages you’ll want to share. Also, while your communications partner can work to identify potentially sensitive questions, sometimes unexpected ones still arise. Don’t panic. Remember, you don’t have to answer every question. You can view these situations as an opportunity to tactfully bridge to the topics you do want to discuss.
There will be times you’re on the record when you want to share details you’re not sure about. In those cases, don’t say “off the record,” or “don’t quote me on this.” The reporter is under no obligation to adhere.
Instead, reference the example generally to make your point. Then, follow up with the journalist after with the added details – or ask your communications partner to do so. You can also reply after an interview to clear up something you said. While the journalist is not required to make the change, they will almost always be glad to adjust if it’s in the name of clarity or accuracy.
What is Under Embargo? Exclusive?
There are two other areas worth mentioning in the context of on-record conversations: embargos and exclusives.
An embargo conversation is when a journalist agrees ahead of time to hold on publishing your information until a specific date and time. This is often aligned with the timing of a press release or other public unveiling. This is an effective strategy for a few reasons. It increases your chances of day-of announcement coverage; it provides the journalist time to absorb the information, ask questions, and develop their story; and it allows the journalist to publish a time-sensitive story.
Embargos make for the best of both worlds. You’re on the record, but you have control over the timing.
Some companies have held product demos “on background with no attribution.” A more effective strategy would be to implement an embargo. Even if the embargo date is subject to change, the reporter will be more willing to work with you on timing if they feel they aren’t being kept at arm’s length. This strategy ensures the reporter receives information in a timely manner while keeping everything under wraps until the company is ready to reveal the full details.
Then there are exclusives. This is when a journalist agrees to cover a piece of news and the company commits to providing exclusive information. Meaning, you are not sharing this information with other media until after the story hits. It gives the reporter a chance to get the “scoop.” This is particularly effective when trying to establish a relationship with a top-tier journalist or give them more incentive to cover your story. It’s extra leverage to apply when needed. By providing a journalist with an opportunity to break a story, you’re giving them a leg up amongst their peers and making your story more attractive to them.
Take a Custom Approach
As a rule, the best way to build brand awareness, thought leadership, and establish credibility with media and your target audiences is through open and transparent communication. Working with a journalist is a relationship, not a singular transaction, and each encounter will differ from the last. It’s always important to respect their needs and work with your communications team to establish a custom media strategy.
By being dependable, knowledgeable, and setting clear boundaries each time, you will become a trusted resource they come to time and time again. All these tools serve a specific purpose. And, when expertly applied, they will help the journalist tell the best story to the right people – and help drive the impact you desire.