By Carl Carter, APR
The president-elect had an “off-the-record” meeting with top officials and anchors of the TV news networks yesterday, and you can read all about it, on pretty much any news site you care to visit.
How could such a thing happen? The same way it can happen to you, if you talk to reporters without knowing the rules of the game. And the tricky part is many of these rules are unwritten. But I’m going to write this one down for you so you can learn it the easy way:
When you’re talking to a reporter, you’re always on the record.
Even if you said, “This is off the record” and the reporter agreed.
It isn’t the reporter’s job to understand you, make your life easier or promote your business. Their job is to write stories, not keep secrets.
That said, there are times when you can “go off-record” and get away with it. I do it myself from time to time, as a matter of fact. I’m going to tell you how in this post, but you have to know when to do it (seldom or never). It has a place when the reporter needs a piece of information to avoid writing a story that is misleading or inaccurate.
Problem is, sometimes there are good reasons why I can’t provide that piece of information — at least not for attribution. Sometimes I’m not the appropriate source for it. It might exceed my authority or conflict with the role I’m playing that day.
Yet, in four decades as either a journalist or a PR professional, I’ve never met a reporter who wanted to write an inaccurate story. So I cheat, just a bit. We reach a friendly agreement. I will ask permission to go off-record to provide that bit of information. I tell them what I would rather not have attributed to me. Then I tell the reporter when I’m able to go back on the record.
At this point, you may be recoiling in horror. How could a veteran PR guy like me be so reckless as to say stuff off record, knowing it can still be quoted? I’m actually going to answer that in a minute, but first, I want to make something very clear: This is not a tactic for beginners or dabblers. Don’t try this at home, kids. Remember, we’re professionals.
That said, here’s how I do it:
Start with a relationship of trust. Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to develop relationships with many reporters. They know two things: (1) I won’t lie to them, and (2) I won’t tell them everything. But they also know and trust that (3) I want to help them get their story without wasting their time. In that context, they’re more likely to respect an “off the record” comment.
Say as little as possible “off-record.” The “off-record” tactic isn’t for currying favor, bitching or attacking the reporter. (This is where President Trump went wrong in his meetings with the TV networks.) I use it only for one purpose: To keep the reporter from making an error.
Say it in the dullest way possible. When you’re talking off the record, the last thing you want to be is clever and colorful. Provide a great quote, and it may be too tempting for the reporter to resist. This is the time to be boring.
Point the reporter to resources for confirming the off-record comment. Often, there’s a record the reporter can check or a source who can — on record — say what I can’t. Making a reporter’s job easier is always a good move.
Be willing to live with what you say if the reporter uses it. This is the most important part of all. I never say anything to a reporter that I can’t live with if I read it in the next day’s paper. It might embarrass me or complicate my day, but I’ll survive it.
There’s no such thing as an off-record conversation. As I said above, the reporter’s job is to tell stories. If the whole conversation is off-record, you’re not giving him one, so there’s no point in even talking.
So there. I’ve told you a genuine secret. But if you don’t play it perfectly (and sometimes even if you do), you’re going to get burned. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.