Can we talk off the record?

It has to be the most frequently asked question by clients when preparing for media interviews. There appears to be a huge amount of confusion about what it actually means and plenty of apprehension about the consequences of telling a journalist anything in confidence. So here is a background briefing on speaking off-the-record. Firstly what does it mean? The trouble is that it can mean two very different things. If there’s confusion about which form of off-the-record is being used, then inevitably it will end in tears – not the journo’s.

Off-the-record can mean that whatever the journalist is told can be reported so long as it is not attributed to the person who said it. This is a common definition and is widely respected by reporters who know that it is a serious breach of their code of ethics to divulge the identity of their source or to betray the trust of that source by using information inappropriately.

If, for no other reason, journos will go to great lengths to protect their sources to maintain their own reputations and to ensure future access to information. So usually a person speaking off-the-record is identified by a descriptor such as ‘a source,’ ‘a senior insider,’ ‘a party official’ or ‘a colleague’. Sometimes they may be given an alias so the story has a strong narrative and the audience can identify with the source’s plight. The important thing is that the identity is not revealed. Then there’s the other form of off-the-record. That’s when neither the identity of the source or the information they’ve passed on can be revealed. This is important when someone needs a reporter to know the context of a story but can’t reveal their identity or the actual information because it would prejudice them. This is surprisingly common. Obviously the journalist prefers the first form of off-the-record. Disguising a source is relatively easy to do whereas finding someone else to provide inside information can be extremely tough. So unless someone has defined what is meant by off-the-record, they can assume the journalist has understand they were happy for the information to be used so long as their identity isn’t revealed. The other important thing to remember is that the success of speaking off-the-record depends entirely on trust. Entrusting a career or reputation to a journo can be a big call. Don’t go off the record unless you have already gained the trust of the actual journalist concerned.

It is important to remember that whilst journalists are guided by their code of ethics this is not legally enforceable and isn’t policed. And there is one important override. The public interest is considered more important that the requirement to protect an individual’s anonymity.

Occasionally breaching off-the-record confidences can be considered an important democratic safety valve. For example, Ronald Reagan’s famous “we begin bombing in five minutes” quip was a case of the media breaching an off-the-record confidence for the greater public good. Morris Llema asking “who’s that f#wit?” in relation to Tunnel boss, Graham Mulligan wasn’t intended for the record.

But golden rule is the most useful to remember: Always assume, if you are within breathing space of a camera, microphone or journo, that you are on-the-record and if you don’t want to see it, hear it or read it, then don’t say it.

Do this and you’ll know for sure that whatever you say, whether it be a background briefing or an on-the-record comment, you won’t land in more trouble than you can handle.