On or Off the Record

A journalist’s job is to report the news and uncover stories that are captivating and pertinent to their beat. As a public relations professional, my job is to get clients in front of the right reporters, and, most importantly, ensure they are properly prepared for interviews. As an interview is solidified, an important question arises – what are the ground rules? Which details are on or off the record?

PR professionals around the world would agree that hearing a client spill something that should have been off-the-record is cringe-worthy. Even the smallest background details about a new product or potential hire, before publicly available, risks generating a story. Whether that information, and ultimately the story, should have been released ultimately falls on the shoulders of clients and their PR representatives.

It is crucial that both parties, the public relations representative and the client, outline all of the talking points before meeting with the reporter. While it’s not uncommon for an interview to veer off topic, it should always be pre-determined what pending news or information should be kept out of the conversation.

For example, a reporter for a tier-one business publication may be focusing on electronic trading in the corporate bond markets. You, the PR professional, realize that this is an area in which one of your clients specializes and can offer a great deal of insight. This is a great opportunity for you to position your client as a thought leader within its respective market. The company also happens to have a partnership announcement slated for release the following week. Should this information be shared with the reporter or kept off the record during the interview?

There are pros and cons to both approaches, and neither is necessarily incorrect. If this reporter is provided with information on the upcoming announcement and told that everything is on the record, he/she may incorporate that into their story on electronic trading, citing it as a key example. On the downside, this decreases the overall impact that the actual announcement will have the following week, as other reporters will have seen that the news has been previously covered. It all depends on the interview’s goal, and the approach you take with the reporter.

On the flip side, this opportunity also has its benefits. Let’s say the reporter gets wind of this partnership announcement from a third party or even the client. It’s perfectly fine to inform the reporter that the partnership information is off the record for now and a separate discussion can be held at a later time to focus on that. The majority of reporters will be fine with that approach and will, in fact, appreciate that you are upfront and honest with them.

I have found that it is better to steer clients clear of mentioning any information that they would categorize in an interview as “off the record.” If something is shared during a meeting with a reporter, regardless of what is said afterward, there is a chance that the disclosed information could end up in a story. Regardless of your approach, it should always be made clear prior to an interview what will be on-the-record and what will be off-the-record. If there are any questions about whether something should be on or off, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and keep it off the record.

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