“Off the Record”: Proceed with Caution
Has a reporter ever asked you a question “off the record,” and you’re unsure how to approach this potentially sticky situation? In the world of journalism, an off-the-record statement can help provide context or background information to a reporter, and it is (usually) understood as off limits, or not for publication. But as many of us already know, whether through personal experience or the many off-the-record celebrity blunders (i.e., Anthony Scaramucci), off the record doesn’t necessarily mean you get a free pass to say whatever you want without any consequences.
Often, the standard advice is to never provide any information off the record. Typically, this protects both you and journalist from any form of miscommunication—and more importantly, it keeps you from saying something you really shouldn’t. But, there’s a reason off the record exists, and if executed properly, you may be able to not only strengthen your media relationships but also help improve the overall story you’re participating in.
So how do you know whether or not you should answer an off the record question? Here are five things to consider:
- It can strengthen media relationships: As mentioned above, providing off-the-record information is a great way to strengthen media relationships. When you’re able to develop a rapport with a reporter, not only will they feel more comfortable in asking you off the record questions, but you’ll also feel safe in sharing information with them that isn’t necessarily public knowledge. If you’re fortunate enough to establish this kind of working relationship with a member of the media, it often can evolve into a long-lasting relationship. Not only can you rely on that reporter to hold true to their word, but they can rely on you to give them the background knowledge they need to do their job well.
- It can be interpreted in different ways:If you’re considering giving an off-the-record statement to a reporter, you should probably clarify first what the reporter’s own definition is. For some, off the record means the information is strictly for background use only and not for publication. However, many also believe that off the record provides the flexibility to use a statement, while leaving the source anonymous or using minimal identifying information about you (i.e., the company you work or area in which you are located). Before ever agreeing to an off the record statement, make sure you clarify this with the reporter first.
- It can help better tell the story: Off-the-record information can often provide the journalist with the additional background information they need to help them better report on a complicated story. While this may not be as common in the financial world, it’s still very much an option should you wish to provide further clarification to a reporter on a certain subject. For example, an advisor may not want this to be a part of their official interview, but by providing this background information, they are able to provide examples or context to the reporter so that they can better understand the topic.
- Only share information you’re willing to go public with: While being a helpful resource to the media helps ensure you’ll be interviewed again in the future, you should also tread lightly when it comes to off-the-record statements. While an off-the-record statement may not be something you wish to broadcast publically, it should also not be something so outrageous that it could be potentially damaging to you, should it be published. Even if it’s off the record, going on rants or sharing opinionated or controversial views that you don’t wish to share publically should be avoided at all costs. It‘s one thing to provide some background information or context to a story, but it’s quite another to share a juicy statement that could seriously impact you or your business.
- Trust your instinct and know the reporter you’re working with: As you can imagine, off-the-record questions can be very circumstantial, so trust your judgment when deciding whether or not to answer. If a reporter asks you a question that’s fairly straightforward and avoids anything truly controversial, you’re probably safe in going off the record. However, if an off-the-record question ever makes you feel awkward or hesitant, then you should probably avoid providing a statement. As you work with reporters more and more, you’ll also probably find that you’ll get a feel for who you can trust and who you feel comfortable providing off-the-record information to.