Garry South, a hard-hitting political consigliere to then-California Governor Gray Davis, was decades ahead of his time: he never went off the record.
In addition to helping a then-junior press guy (me) to stay “on-message,” it was a valuable reminder that you should act as if you are always on the record, because you are, even if you proclaim otherwise.
Flash forward to today’s live streaming of events and audio and video recorders on everybody’s phone—every interaction with the public and the media can be broadcast widely. And remember, it will that one time you are at your worst, and it will very likely be taken out of context. But once it’s out there, it’s out there. Period.
Garry’s now seemingly clairvoyant cajoling of reporters via speakerphone contains a lesson for all communications professionals: it’s all on the record, all the time and we must act accordingly.
Even though technological advances might indicate that the rules don’t matter anymore, they still do in many situations. It still is necessary to know the rules of engagement while speaking to reporters.
Here are some terms and etiquette to guide your interactions with journalists:
On the record
This means anything and everything you said can be quoted. Who can officially go on the record is usually decided by the leadership of a company, government agency or organization. In politics, it’s decided by the candidate and campaign manager. Aside from the CEO, executive director, candidate or office holder, those allowed to speak on the recordautomatically have a target on their back.
For example, I have served as a press secretary for a governor and communication director for a statehouse leader in California. In both cases, I was seen by both the media, and my bosses, as the “go-to” person for commenting on the record.
The thrill of seeing your name in print can offset by the stress of how your quote might get used.
Many corporations have an understanding that their front-line workers, the barista, the ticket-taker, the server, whomever takes your call to customer service, are always on-the-record and serve as company spokespeople. This is a smart tact that any organization that interacts with the public should adopt.
However, most journalists covering an established beat, like Capitol politics or health care look for official spokespeople from elected officials, government agencies and organizations.
On background and deep background
When you speak on background, that means the reporter cannot quote you by name. But it doesn’t limit them from describing you in a way such as “a key advisor to the Governor” or “a spokesman for the organization.” For example, after I tell a reporter the governor has not taken a position on a bill, the story will likely read “an aide to the governor stated she has not taken a position on the bill.” What you say on background can also be paraphrased.
Having your hand-picked policy experts go on background is helpful for two reasons. First, it oftentimes eases the nerves of these policy wonks who may not speak with the media often. Sharing with them that they will not be quoted has sped agreements to get these experts connected with journalists. Second, it helps journalists understand complex issues so they can simplify it for their audiences.
Lot of times, these are “let me pick your brain” kind of conversations that can help journalists ask more focused questions, and in many cases, help them better understand the answers. This is the same kind of discovery PR pros should do themselves, for themselves, to make better pitches.
Depending on the sensitivity of the topic, speaking on background can cause almost as much grief as being on the record because it can still reflect negatively on the campaign or organization.
Deep background applies when you want the reporter to publish or broadcast the information, but not have it attributed in any way that could even vaguely identify you. Such was the agreement Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward made with their Watergate source “Deep Throat.” When you read a story that includes the phrase “sources said,” you know you’re reading a story put out on deep background.
Only in rare cases is deep backgroundstill used. These days it is employed by PR pros to proactively leak news as part of a policy roll out or to float a trial balloon.
Off the record
This term can have different meanings, but in general off the record means a reporter cannot use quotes or attribute information to a source in their story.
This tactic should be used to give a journalist some guidance on how a decision was made, to express opinions, or to help shape the tone of news coverage. Don’t assume off the record conversations will never to be repeated orally to your allies or opponents. It just means it can’t be put in print or broadcast.
But as I mentioned earlier, going on background, deep background and off the record should not imply or in any way guarantee anonymity.
Making comments on background and off the record is a smart way to give on the record quotes context and meaning. However, these ground rules should never be presumed. Assume everything is on the record and act accordingly. This is easy to forget when you are on friendly terms with a reporter, but remember, they have a job to do and so do you.
It’s a good idea to keep your wits about you even when dealing with genuinely good friends in the press. Like policemen, they are always on duty. This goes double for “social occasions.” Anything you say after a few drinks is as good as something you said during a press event. A joke may have been hilarious last night, but its humor will be lost when it’s published and becomes cable news and social media fodder.
Reporters at most news organizations are not authorized to give anonymity, except from their editor or the editor’s boss. As a source, you should assume that a reporter promising anonymity will share your identity and comments with at least one editor.
One way Garry went around getting quoted directly was by peppering his sentences with cursing that would make the writers of The Departed blush. This would force reporters to write something along the lines of “Mr. South vigorously contested the opposition party’s allegations” to frame his “family-friendly’ quote.
Given our national landscape today, that’s one technique that may not work anymore.
But knowing these ground rules is hardly enough
You need to use them at all times.And keep in mind these terms mean different things to different reporters.
Politicians and their spokespeople, and anyone who works regularly with the press, must develop their own techniques that will force them to say, “Now, this is on background, okay?” “Now, I don’t want this identified as a ‘Democratic aide,’ or ‘senior official’ or anything like that, alright? I just want to give you a little guidance.”
This is where developing relationships with journalists is crucial. A credible reporter will respect these arrangements, not just for ethical reasons but because they don’t want to dry up a good source or gain a bad reputation.
Just remember that the media is a business with goal of getting people to read their stories. If you offer an irresistible scoop—such as “off the record, we discovered life on Mars, they are landing here tomorrow afternoon”—and expect it be kept under wraps, you are sorely mistaken.
And remember, the minute one side doesn’t want to play that way anymore they can simply end the game. Reporters may use what they have available at any moment, out of a cold-blooded calculation that what you said is more important than anything you might provide in the future. And to be fair, communications staffers are also making cold-blooded calculations on what to leak in order to garner more favorable coverage for their clients and bosses.
It happens. I have been burned by my own mistakes and by a few reporters who I will—truthfully—always have a grudge against. You should be particularly fearful of any reporter who urges you to tell them something off the record. If they cannot publish the information, why do they want it?
Even under the tightest ground rules, some things you tell the press will always be fair game. Remember that the media has a job to do. You have yours. It should not be an adversarial relationship, but rather one of mutual respect.
And you can quote me on that.