In our social-media age where the urge to confess is as irresistible as popping peanuts, it’s surprising that a quaint term like “off the record” still carries weight.Remember that incident in the last presidential election when Samantha Power, an Obama advisor, called Hillary Clinton a “monster” in an interview with a Scottish reporter? Power had gone off the record but only after she had slammed Clinton. She forgot that important part of the “off the record” rule: Establish the ground rules first. Still, a lot of the U.S. journalism establishment was apoplectic at the time about it, saying you honor an “off the record” request even if given after the fact. By “off the record,” we’re of course referring to that journalistic practice of being given information that cannot be printed or attributed. It is sometimes confused with talking on background, which is providing information that can be printed without attribution.Meanwhile, while many journalists cotton to the term, PR professionals are often more likely to run when they hear the phrase. That’s because so many of us have been burned by it. As PR coordinator Timothy Vassilakos aptly puts it: “Off the record exists until you get burned once.”As a number of PR professionals have noted (see the interesting discussion on this topic on LinkedIn), there is a built-in conflict between the role of a journalist and that of a PR professional. Journalists, or at least the passionate, seek-the-story-to- the-end-of-the-earth types view their role as truth seekers. They bleed to uncover the real story, not the easy, glossy one. On the other hand, PR people are concerned with image and brand and relationship building. It’s about putting the client in the most favorable light without distorting the truth. Put it this way: The journalist wants to pull off the toupee, so to speak; the PR person to glue it back on.That said, like any human relationship, there are complexities and gray areas. In our experience in the B2B PR world, off the record can work if you know a reporter well and can truly trust the person. No matter how you slice it, however, you are always taking some risk that what you say off the record could see the light of day.Bottom line: “It’s a mighty big gamble,” says PR professional Ed Shapson. “You don’t want to see some statement printed in tomorrow’s newspaper or aired on the evening news? Then don’t make it!”Then why even bother? It can be a way of building relationships with a reporter, though as Cosmin Patlagenurisks noted in the LinkedIn discussion, there are better ways to build relationships: “Keep your word, deliver on time, say you can’t when you can’t, be there when you’re needed.” Here are some questions to ask yourself as you ponder the slippery slope of off the record:What will happen if the reporter doesn’t honor your off-the-record request and prints what you say? What will be the ramifications?What do you gain by going off the record?Did you carefully lay out the ground rules in terms of what is considered off the record and what you mean by that? A New York Times reporter recently claimed to have a different definition of off the record than the commonly agreed upon one. Unless there is a compelling reason to go “off the record” and you can wholeheartedly trust a reporter, keeping your lips sealed is the safest approach to ensure your words, said in confidence, won’t be splashed across the page–and the number one reason not to go off the record. What do you think?–Read more from author Wendy Marx, a B2B PR and exeuctive branding specialist, at Marx Communications.[Image: Flickr user Jamelah]
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