Gini Dietrich

Off the Record Doesn't Exist

By: Gini Dietrich | September 17, 2009 | 


I have an off the record story for you. Many years ago, I secured a feature on 60 Minutes for a client. The story was a three day shoot, turned into 30 minutes for the program, on how catfish are farmed. Catfish, by nature, are bottom feeders. But cotton farmers figured out how to take cotton fields and turn them into catfish farms, which (at the time) was much more lucrative.

A week prior to the shoot, when they would spend three days following catfish from farm to fork, we put our spokesperson through intense media training. Even though I was only mid-level at the time, because I secured the story, I got to sit in on the media training. When I say it was intense, I mean INTENSE. Video cameras in his face. Rude “reporters”. The whole thing. The media trainer wanted to be sure the spokesperson was prepared for every situation and that, even with exhaustion on the third day of shooting, he was still on message.

There was one issue. The Japanese were dumping catfish into the United States and calling it farm-raised. It was a pretty big problem and we had lobbying and regulatory teams working on the issue at the same time this “feel good” story was being shot.  The media trainer worked the spokesperson pretty hard on this issue…wanting to prepare him in case it came up, but also training him not to bring it up.

The shoot went beautifully. It was such a great learning experience for me. Three days of shooting. Learning even more about catfish farming than I knew before. Really endearing me to the client. And then it happened. The video crew was packing up and we were walking the reporter to the elevator. The spokesperson said, “Man! I am so glad you didn’t ask me about the Japanese dumping catfish. Glad we made it!”

Three days of shooting down the tube. In an instant. The story then became about the regulatory issue and not at all about catfish farming. The spokesperson said, “But it was off the record! We weren’t filming anymore! We were finished.”

If I’d been more experienced at the time, I would have stopped the comment mid-sentence and gotten him away from that reporter. I also learned a valuable lesson.

Off the record doesn’t exist.

President Obama learned this lesson earlier this week. If there is a reporter within earshot, it is NEVER off the record. I don’t care if you are the President of the United States or what you have to say is true (Kanye West IS a jackass). A reporter never takes their reporting hat off. And they don’t have to keep anything you say off the record.

If you don’t want it on the news, don’t say it.

Do you have an off the record story?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • A number of years ago (and I will not say how many) when I was a teen, I had made some not so nice comments in a diary. The book was discovered and it all came back to me very quickly. When lamenting to my Grandmother about how unfair it was to have someone read it without permission, she calmly smiled and me and said. “Never put into writing anything you don’t want to repeat in court.” Then she reminded me that the result would not have happened had I not written it down. (Great Lesson in Personal Responsibility)

    To be clear, I know of no incidence where she acted as anything but a very ethical, well-mannered and considered person. What she did know is that our words, on paper or otherwise, have the capacity to come back to us with lightening speed. These words can either bite us or help us. In this day of social media and instant access to people’s personal lives, her advice stands especially true.

    Whether to the media – who now have instant access to us, our comments and our lives – or anyone else, being impeccable with your words is vitally important! Thanks for the great story and wonderful blog post, Gini!

  • Been a reporter, served as a mouthpiece for corporate America and worked with 60 Minutes, and I never did get a T-shirt. What I did get was off the record doesn’t exist, as onc you say something, it’s on the record. Of course Obama knows that, and I believe it was a clever way to positively relate to the public as no one would disagree with what he said about Kanye. Of course, it’s not nearly as bad as when a corporate client (who had been through media training) responded to a benign media inquiry with “oh, you’re calling about that. I thought you were calling about the sexual assault this afternoon.” BTW, I love me some catfish!

  • J. Morrin

    A corollary to this rule, which lawyers teach their clients when taking them “out of office” into the enemy’s camp, is, “no talking in elevators or restrooms.” For some reason, clients unburden themselves in these places, as if no one were listening. Always a mistake!

  • Jim – GREAT point! We do that with new business, too. No one is allowed to speak about a new business presentation until we’re in the car and on our way back to the office. Not in the elevator. Not in the lobby. Not in the parking lot.

    Susan – As always, love your comments. It’s unbelievable what people will say…even smart, professional, and trained people.

    Patti – What a fantastic reminder that this extends past what you say to reporters! I love the anecdote. Thank you for sharing!

  • We’re off the record with this blog, right?

    Many years ago, I worked with a client who, exiting a cab said, “off the record, our goal for the XYZ division is to sell one million widgets this year.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

    This client learned 100 valuable lessons: just because YOU say “off the record” doesn’t mean the reporter needs to agree to it. You can get their agreement first, then open your mouth. I’ve found reporters trustworthy when you get them to agree to things like “off the record” and “background.”

    The above example was exacerbated when the company made “Sell 1 Million This Year!” a rallying cry, complete with T-Shirts. I kid you not.

  • You’re so right. Off the record talks between PR folks and journalists are popular in TV shows like the West Wing where you see the two ‘conspirators’ walking down the hall trading secrets. It makes the exchange look as enticing as Humphrey Bogart lighting up a cigarette. But it’s a different story in real life…And, it’s even more important to think about what you say on social networking sites, when an offhand comment to friends on Twitter can be taken out of context and quickly spread.

  • Dave – PLEASE tell me you have an extra shirt! I wear a small.

  • From a reporter’s perspective, it’s frustrating to be interviewing someone on the record only to have them say something interesting and then quickly say “oh, that was off the record.” I’m not a believer in ambush journalism and if the subject is not media savvy I’ll do my best to accomodate. However, people who are interviewed a lot should know better. I’m rarely interviewed myself, but for print at least, I’m becoming a believer in the email interview. There are drawbacks, but for those of us who write more coherently than we speak (at least a little bit more coherently) it offers a chance to edit out the off-the-record stuff. It also provides a “trail” of what was actually said, resulting in fewer misquotes. I interview many CEOs by email these days and it seems to work well.

  • Del – This is one of the many reasons we love you! You’re honest and fair, but also have a job to do.

    Martin – Great thinking on social networking, too!

  • No I do not. And I do not give a rat’s patootie if you do not believe me.

  • Off the record does exist but it is the exception not the rule. Unless you specifically ask to go off the record, AND the reporter agrees (they don’t have to), then you are on the record. It is NOT the default.

    The catfish guy sounds pretty naive but he was most definitely ON the record at the time he made those remarks.

    To go off the record, he would need to get the reporter somewhere private, ask them for permission to go off the record, and then give the info. You would do this if you want the reporter to have the information but you don’t want it to come from you. A good reporter, once they’ve been asked and agreed to go off the record, would respect that. They would then need to verify the information independently in order to publish it – ideally by backing it up with something on the record from another source or from public records or, at a pinch, finding several unnamed sources who say the same thing.

    Of course, it all depends on context and I don’t seek to make every conversation with friends on the record. But when I’m a professional doing an interview, especially with someone from a company with all the benefits of PR and media training, then I will use the professional definitions of on or off the record.

    If it had personal repercussions for you or him, but it sounds like it was an important story and I”m glad it was made public. Do you know if the problem of Japanese catfish dumping was solved as a result of the publicity? I hope so.

  • In the Obama example, he was not off the record because he a) tried to make it off the record after the fact and b) it was in front of an entire room full of reporters. You can’t really go off the record in a public forum. However, no harm done – I’ve heard the audio and I think he sounded fine. People are smart enough to know these weren’t formal presidential remarks. Those that aren’t already hate him.

    Dave is right about asking for agreement first. I don’t think you’d be doing clients a service if you taught them that they couldn’t trust reporters to have an off-the-record conversation one on one.

    Del raises some interesting points. I can’t agree about email interviews though. It’s great if that works for Del but I won’t use it as anything but a last resort. I think it’s great for the PR agenda of the person being interviewed. I don’t think it works well for journalism. People don’t always write the way they speak, so you end up with very bland, boring quotes, probably written by the PR person not the CEO. You can’t have a conversation – in the best interviews, the questions are not all predetermined but arise from the answers given. You are not building rapport and a relationship with the interviewee for future stories. Finally, there’s no element of surprise – it’s fine for getting info you already know (or should know, if you’ve done your research), but you are unlikely to find out new things.

  • Brian Conrey

    Imagine walking up to your boss and saying, “Off the record – this job is really terrible, the management stinks, and I can’t wait to get out of here.”

    Or, being a teenager, “Dad – off the record – I always speed when I borrow your car. I don’t use my turn signal, either”.

    “….but I said it was off the record!”

    The whole world is a stage. You’re on stage all the time and you’re being judged by your performance. It’s inescapable.

  • Very important tip made here: Off the record is an agreement between the source and the reporter.

    You can’t get away with:
    –Blanket off the record agreements with a room full of reporters. “Let me see a show of hands. How many of you agree not to report what I just said.” (Sound of crickets chirping follows.)
    –Making a statement and then declaring it off the record. Also called a unilateral agreement, and usually worth the paper it isn’t written on.
    –Wishfully thinking because the microphone is off the reporter won’t have the guts to quote you.

    If it’s the first time in front of the national press, you have to rely on the reporter’s personal integrity to honor agreements. If they have no stake in developing sources in your town or sphere of influence, you’re taking a huge risk. Fortunately, integrity has not gone out of style entirely. But, how do you know that with any certainty of that fact about the person sitting across from you with microphone in hand?

    One seemingly innocuous comment can blow up into the focus for a story. Reporter’s are looking for headline stories. If you thought like an editor, you would know that a feature story (fish farming) is filler between the real stories (controversial fish dumping that domestic farmers are unhappy about). Don’t assume the reporter is tuned into what is happening in your industry. Don’t offer anything, especially something you wouldn’t want to become the focus of a national story.

    I can hear all the crying over beer: “That’s not fair.” Here’s a tip: Information can be bartered.

  • @Brian If I told a friend in confidence that I didn’t like my job and they agreed to keep my secret, then I would expect that to be honoured. If you have a relationship of trust with a reporter then it’s really no different. What matters is your motivation for saying it.

    Off the record is a useful tool. If you don’t want the reporter to know something, then you don’t say it. If you don’t want the public to know something then you probably shouldn’t say it either, since the reporter is a conduit to the public. You might if the reporter needs to know for another reason – for example, why they should hold off on a particular story, or if they are a friend and you want them to know in a personal context. However, most of the time, it’s used when you DO want the public to know about something, but you don’t want to come out and say it on the record.

  • I do agree with Caitlin that “off the record” can be used as a tool. Especially if you’re a communication professional – you tend to have friends who are reporters. Just like any relationship, you expect some things to not be made into a story. But for those who are inexperienced with the media, the best rule is nothing is off the record.

  • Paul Holmes

    The pragmatic truth is that if, as a reporter, you are given information off the record, you have to ask yourself one question: Is the story I could write more important than the relationship I could lose? If you’re a trade reporter, like me, the relationship almost always wins — which is to say, I don’t believe I have ever been given a story so big that it was worth screwing someone over to publish first. But the bigger the journalist/publication, the more likely it is that the story comes first.

  • @Paul In my career I have worked as a trade journalist a couple of times (covering technology and media respectively). I have to say that most of my best stories came off the record. You are right that it’s about relationships but off the record actually helps with that in my experience. Trade journals can be very powerful in some industries as you would know. I found that my contacts would use off the record to anonymously feed me information their clients or bosses didn’t want public (or planned to release at a later date). Their motivation was that they knew that it would help them build a relationship with me and make me more likely to come knocking when I needed quotes for a feature or someone to write a review. The sort of stuff that can really boost someone’s profile and help them build a career.

    Of course, reporters should always remain sceptical. If someone is telling you something off the record, it may not be true. They may be trying to feed you misinformation and by doing it anonymously they don’t have to put their name to it or defend it. Some journalists will get so excited by the prospect of having the inside info and writing a scoop, that they won’t bother to verify it or they’ll quote rumours that have only come from one source.

  • You know, Paul brings up a good point. I have friends who are trade reporters and I tell them things “off the record” all the time. Sometimes it’s to help them understand why I can’t give them what the need. Sometimes it’s to give them a head start on a story. Sometimes it’s so they’ll hold space in an issue for a story. And sometimes it’s to give them an exclusive.

    In the Obama instance, like Paul says, the reporter had to decide if the story was more important than ever having a shot to interview the President again.