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Gini Dietrich

There is No Such Thing as Off-the-Record

By: Gini Dietrich | August 1, 2013 | 
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There is No Such Thing as Off-the-RecordBy Gini Dietrich

By now you’ve probably heard about Anthony Weiner’s communications director going off the rails.

I’m not going to repeat here what she said, but let’s just say she called a former intern some really awful names. And, if that weren’t enough, she did so while talking with a journalist.

The story goes like this: A former intern wrote an article for the New York Daily News about the inner workings of the Weiner campaign. In it, she described how most interns work for Weiner simply to get to know his wife (whose boss is Hillary Clinton) in hopes of making it on to the 2016 Presidential campaign, should Clinton run.

She goes on to describe the “short resumes” of many of the staff members, including communications director Barbara Morgan. Talking Points Memo called Morgan to discuss the Daily News article and that’s when she went on a profanity-laced tirade against the intern, calling her every name in the book and some made up ones, too.

When Jill Colvin, the senior political reporter at the New York Observer called Morgan to find out why she reacted the way she did, Morgan said, ”I thought it was an off-the-record conversation.”

You can read about it on Gawker by clicking here.

No Such Thing as Off-the-Record

Here’s where I have a problem: You are the communications director. I don’t care if your resume is short. You, of all people, should know there is no such thing as an off-the-record conversation.

Even if you have a verbal agreement from a journalist that they won’t print what you’ve said (and I’ve never met a journalist who will agree to that), they can always print what you said as an anonymous informant or pieces of what you said – maybe unwittingly so – can very easily come through in other pieces he or she will write.

When we do media training for clients, this is the one thing we drill into their heads over and over and over again. There is no such thing as off-the-record.

Here’s the problem: As soon as you lean in and say to a journalist, “I’m going to tell you something, but it’s off-the record,” they know you’re about to give them something really juicy.

The unethical ones will keep silent or grin slightly as if to say, “Okay, we have a deal” so you’ll spill the beans. The ethical ones will tell you nothing is off-the-record, but cross all their fingers and toes in hopes you’ll still tell them what you have to say.

Think about it from your own perspective. If you have a friend who says, “I have to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone,” what is the very first thing you want to do? It’s freaking human nature. We want to tell the whole world. Of course, some of us don’t, but that urge is really hard to fight.

A Former Client Experience

Early in my career, I worked on The Catfish Institute account. In fact, that account was a huge coup for me in my career because their president at the time is a lifelong friend of mine and I am the one who secured the multi-year, multi-million dollar business for the agency.

So, of course, I had carte blanche in dealings with the clients, including sitting in extremely high-level strategy sessions that I, at all of 26 years old, had no business being in.

About a year into working with them, I gained a valuable experience.

An Asian country was dumping catfish into the United States and calling it U.S. farm-raised. It was a really big deal and it required senior-level expertise from our office, the headquarters office in St. Louis, and the Washington, D.C. office.

I received a year-long education in lobbying and regulatory affairs while we worked hard to get the government to put a stop to this.

During the process, “60 Minutes” – which was to be the pinnacle of my career – wanted to do a story about catfish farming, how to prepare the flaky white fish, and what farmers were doing about the bottom-dwelling, bottom-feeding creatures to make them more appealing to Americans.

We called in the big guns for this one. I can’t remember how much it cost for three days of media training, but I’d venture to guess it was more than $50,000. During those three days, we prepared the president and the chairman of the board for every possible question.

We had one missive: Don’t talk about the catfish dumping.

You see, we weren’t prepared to discuss it and it was still very highly confidential, even though we were working hard in Washington.

The interview went spectacularly well. The TV crews, producers, and on-camera talent spent a few days in Mississippi. They talked to catfish farmers. They fed the catfish. They ate the catfish. They lived and breathed the catfish.

The interview was over and we were about 15 minutes away from celebrating. We were in The Catfish Farmer offices and the chairman of the board and the president walked the producer and one of the cameramen to the front door.

To this day, I don’t know which one of them said it, but the words, “We’re so glad you didn’t ask us about the Asians dumping catfish into the U.S.” came out of someone’s mouth.

The cameras were packed up. The microphones were put away. The on-camera talent was safely tucked in the car to go back to the airport.

Guess what the story was about?

Three glorious days of filming a story with incredible interviews, beauty shots, and even catfish that cooperated. And the story ended up being about the Asian country that was dumping catfish into the United States.

There is no such thing as off-the-record.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

92 comments
tracibrowne
tracibrowne

Gini, I understand the point you are making but also want to emphasize that "off-the-record" is still a very respected phrase to journalists. But you have to actually say it before you speak. You can't just throw it out there after something is published. Here is an excellent article from Poynter that talks about guidelines for off-the-record conversations. It's old but still relevant.

http://www.poynter.org/uncategorized/25191/questions-to-ask-before-going-off-the-record/

allpointspr100
allpointspr100

There really is no such thing as off the record. Memories don't forget things easily and thus, everything you say is on some sort of record. 

mickeygomez
mickeygomez

I LOVE the catfish story. It reminds me of the Fawlty Towers episode where Basil is told explicitly not to "mention the war" in front of his German guests. Pretty much every single thing that leaves his mouth after that is, of course, about the war.

And I'm sorry to admit that the thought of the look on your face when you found out what happened is maybe mildly amusing. You know, in a completely supportive way.

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bobledrew
bobledrew

I'm going to take a different tack here. At the risk of trying to get inside someone else's head: I don't believe for a minute that she thought her conversation was off the record. I think she used that phrase as a way to try to dig herself out of the mess she created. That aside, I think your post provides very good advice for anyone doing media relations -- and SOCIAL media relations too! 

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

There is no confidential, no off record, everything is fair and plain view of someone with a cell phone, a SM account. What's done can't be undone, what's seen cannot be unseen, never mind getting the video off YT. Privacy? Puh-lease. Co-signing the common sense of the other comments - if it's a secret, keep it to yourself. Period. FWIW.

RegisDudley
RegisDudley

Those last 5 paragraphs made my stomach hurt. I can't imagine the sinking feeling of packing in around the TV, eager to watch the 60 Minutes episode, and then... horror. I'm glad you wrote, this, @ginidietrich. I'll pass along to my colleague who teaches media relations ;).

corinamanea
corinamanea

Great post Gini. Indeed common sense or lack of it has a lot to do with these experiences. On the other hand, this happens when people forget in what position they are. Journalists are NOT your friends. No matter how well you worked with them, how well the interview went, how many years you have known each other, they still have a job to do, just like you. Period.

yvettepistorio
yvettepistorio

She should've known better for sure - and honestly those are the things you may say to yourself, but NEVER to anyone else! 

It's a shame people need to be reminded of this. I guess common sense isn't so common.

douglaserice
douglaserice

It astonishes me that people haven't learned this yet. Although this story didn't directly involve online content, one would think that the proliferation of information people are online would make us more cautious about what we say online and off. 

People talk. They have always talked. It used to be in a bar or a coffee shop. Now, it's on Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes people share things with others and reveal secrets without ever even meaning to. That's just the way we are. 

So, moral of the story, watch what you say. "Off the record" was a phrase invented by the naive. If you have something that you're ashamed of, don't think it. If you must think it, don't say it. If you must say it, deal with the consequences.

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

Wow, what a story! Also, I love fried catfish. 

Lots of great points from everyone, and I've been on both sides. Even more in PR but with a twist. I interview people for our magazine who will often say "that's not for publication" (usually after they've already said it) as if they're talking to a journalist and not someone in marcom. I find it interesting that they view me more as a reporter than the PR manager. I'm looking for a great story that ultimately exemplifies some positive aspect of the organization; I'm not looking for an expose. 

lizreusswig
lizreusswig

As usual, @ginidietrich, you're right on...nothing EVER is "off-the-record" and any professional knows this. Undoubtedly a political communications director in the NY media market should know this. When you're swimming in the shark tank, you don't deliberately cut yourself! Having worked in the political arena myself, I also know that when you're in the midst of a monumental ___storm, you sometimes lose your head - this episode is a classic case-in-point. This whole campaign will be poli sci fodder for years to come.

I do wonder though...are we (the public) more disgusted by this because she's a woman using this language about another woman? There are many male politicians (some maybe are even from, ahem, Chicago?) who regularly drop language bombs.  Definitely doesn't make it right, but I'm just wondering if this is a bigger deal because it's a girl fight?

JeffHaws
JeffHaws

As someone with more than a decade in the journalism industry, here's the key ... Is there, technically speaking, such a thing as "off the record"? Of course. Journalists do, in fact, grant it (reluctantly) to some people in some limited cases, where the sensitivity of the subject demands it, but we still want badly enough to report what they're saying. It's generally a last resort, because it's the only way we can get the story, which is our main goal. I know of many editors who simply, 100% will not allow anonymous sources to support a story, and I get why.


However, if you're a PR person, Gini is absolutely right ... there IS NO off the record. We simply have no reason to grant it to you, because you're not at all likely to give us controversial information that we'd trust enough to run with. And that's fine, because part of your *job* is to protect the company you work for. If the PR person starts telling you terrible things about their company, you get suspicious. If the PR person tells you terrible things about another company, you dismiss it. If the PR person tells you great things about their company, why would they want it off the record?

And we sure as heck aren't going to make your profanity-laced rant off the record? What's in that for us? Not a darn thing, I can assure you. So yes, don't say anything to a journalist you don't expect to be publicly attributed to you.

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

I don't know. In terms of creativity in epithetery, I give the prize to the sorority girl a couple of months back who cussed out her fellow sisters for slacking (also lovingly performed by Michael Shannon on YouTube).

I observed this yesterday with a mix of prurient interest (get the popcorn!) and pity -- accompanied by a lot of cringing. You mix inexperience and the enormous stress that campaign is going through and this is the result.

Morgan certainly bears a lot of responsibility, but in many ways she is just one more victim of Weiner's ridiculous ego. When these kind of scandals occur, I always feel for the staff. They're sold a bill of goods by the candidate, and they put their heart and their lives on the line for them only to be kicked in the teeth.

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

When people tell me something's off the record, usually something along the lines of "how adorable" pops into my head.

When I was a reporter or a senior level editor, I wouldn't attribute that information to the person, but I would find another attributable source for that information. So, I would protect the source, but not the information, if I felt the public needed to know it.

I still do that, but as a publisher/GM, I do understand the need to hold things close to the vest and I will WORK WITH a very very very limited number of sources that I trust - sources that I KNOW will give me a head start on other media when the time comes.

But burn me once then it is "Katie bar the door" as my dad used to say.

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Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

You know it.

It takes a lot of coaching. When we first got email (when it was new for business) my boss required signing off on every one we sent to customers. Today we should know better but we see plenty of politicians blow it (47%) and just this week http://tracking.si.com/2013/07/31/riley-cooper-issues-apology-racial-slur/ 

Funny think about the eagle is he is at a Kenny Chesney concert. You can't be a tough guy and be there he should know better.

bradmarley
bradmarley

Exactly. The first thing I tell my subject matter experts when I do media training is that there is no such thing as off-the-record, so don't even bring that up.

In the case of Weiner (I never thought I'd type those words together in a sentence) everyone here is to blame, from the New York Daily News who gave the intern (and her glamour shots) space to run something that was sure to incite a reaction, to the communications person for calling the intern one of the most callous and offensive words in the history of the English language, to Anthony Weiner for just being himself.

At least us future communications students now have an excellent case study in how not to communicate.

jenzings
jenzings

I worked in politics for a while, and one of the first things you learn is that there is no off the record. One of the other things you learn quickly is "never get mad, except on purpose"--in other words, you must think everything--EVERYTHING--through, even losing your temper. That might sound inauthentic, but staying in control of everything, even (or especially) your emotions is critical. 


That said, the Twitpic of her "swear jar" with 100's and a credit card in it from her stream is pretty funny, and a solid step in admitting fault.

patmrhoads
patmrhoads

@bobledrew I'm with you on this one. I don't believe for a second she thought she was off the record. In fact, I doubt she was thinking at all. My hunch is that she reacted (overreacted) in anger and realized later what a mess she'd created. "I thought I was off the record" was the best excuse she could hope to come up with. 

If that's the case, it adds another element to the lesson that we all need to walk away with. Many times, people asking for comment are looking for something juicy (to use Gini's word) to print/broadcast. Catching someone off guard or making them angry is a great way to get it. The lesson, then, is to always take two or three deep breaths before you answer something that you were unprepared for or for which your instant reaction is to become angry. Come to think of it, this is how I communicate with loved ones, as well, and for the same reason: to NOT say something I'll regret later.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@lizreusswig I'm not a fan of the language Rahm uses, but he never uses it in adjectives about a person. Yeah, he swears like a sailor, but it's never about a person. Perhaps you're right...the fact that she's calling another woman is why we're all up in arms. But the thing that really gets me about the whole thing is her saying she thought it was off-the-record. You're the communications director. You know that doesn't exist.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@RobBiesenbach HAHAHAH! I forgot about her. That was priceless!

I don't think inexperience and stress is an excuse. Mr. D is in politics. I know a lot of the communications directors for big campaigns (including Presidential). Not one of them behaves in this manner. It's unprofessional. She had no sense of decorum. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@ClayMorgan When we media train clients, we ALWAYS coach about the "off-the-record" comment (that and "no comment"). We are trained to mitigate risk and that's one of the ways to do it. I can see why journalists would be okay to use it (and you're one of the ethical guys who actually holds it in confidence), but it's not okay for anyone else to use it.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@bradmarley The intern is a very pretty girl. I'd use the glamour shots, too! It is the Daily News, after all.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jenzings I thought that was pretty funny, too. But then I read a few more articles and this is apparently her MO. I guess she asked a reporter the other day if she F'ing knows what Facebook is. So be funny, but unless you change that behavior, it's all for naught. 

annelizhannan
annelizhannan

@jenzings I saw her twit.pic and found it just to be another flippant statement that tossing a buck in the OhMy will buy her restitution (not a smart strategy for crisis communication).  I did not see this as a  sincere apology on the road to recovery. 

bobledrew
bobledrew

@ginidietrich @@corinamanea And I think it's unfair to them to say "You can't use this but... " It's like you're dangling a hot dog in front of Jack Bauer and letting him sniff it, but not eat it. When I did media relations, if I was on the phone or having a drink with a journalist friend, I would say "There are some things I can't talk about. Sorry." 


lizreusswig
lizreusswig

@ginidietrich We must have the Rahm part of this conversation in person & "off-the-record!" :)  But I agree with you about her lack of professionalism...I'm guessing the "off-the-record" excuse really is just a cya and it'll be interesting to see how many more "scoops" the reporter gets going forward.

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

@ginidietrich No, not necessarily an excuse ... but inexperience at least is a reason this happened. I feel like she was in over her head. And that's probably attributable to Weiner's inability to attract top-notch talent to an obviously flawed campaign (and candidate). I mean, there's a reason communications directors for presidential campaigns don't find themselves in this predicament: they've got the proven skills and experience to rise to that level.

bradmarley
bradmarley

@ginidietrich The fact that she had them made up for this (I assume?) leads me to believe her intention was to become part of the story. But maybe I'm just wrong and naive and jaded.

anitahovey
anitahovey

@ginidietrich @jenzings Did you see the video of her prepping the room for Weiner's arrival? She couldn't take her eyes off her phone and was pretty rude to the people. Not a way to build rapport at all. You could feel the animosity oozing out of her.

jenzings
jenzings

@ginidietrich I'll admit I haven't followed this story too closely, and have no information whatsoever on her or her background or behavior. 

Given that comment, I fear that she's one of those I used to observe in politics: a woman who thinks that to succeed in a typically male-dominated environment, she has to be "one of the boys" (apparently, "one of the boys"=talk like a sailor, which is different than talk like a pirate.../digression). 

In short, I agree: if she doesn't learn the lesson and change the behavior, her career will be short indeed.

jenzings
jenzings

@annelizhannan Well, I'd agree that it isn't a sincere apology. But I'm okay with it, especially considering the general egos that are involved in politics--it at least shows humor and a willingness to move on. I can't fault her for that, and I think the tendency in blogs and on social media to flail someone until they quit or get fired is disgusting.


ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@lizreusswig I'm a fan only because he's creating protected bike lanes throughout the city. Otherwise his reputation proceeds him.

belllindsay
belllindsay

@jenzings @ginidietrich I have the foulest of mouths and regularly curse like a sailor - but even *I* know when it's 'ok' and when to never use such language. No excuse for that kind of ranting and raving.