Never Go Off the Record (Except for When You Do)


If you are a government official – no matter the local, state or federal level – you have more than likely had the opportunity, at some point during your career, to talk to a reporter.

For some of us, it’s part of the job description.

But, here’s the real question – have you ever gone (gasp) ‘off the record’ with a reporter?

The irony is there are so many of us in local government communications that started our careers in journalism. Learning to be a reporter in the early eighties was much less tricky a thing than today, but somewhat daunting nonetheless. Getting a source to go ‘off the record’ conjures that shadowy image of Hal Holbrook talking to Robert Redford in a Georgetown parking garage.

In fact, the first rule of media relations for government communicators is that you are never to go ‘off the record’ with members of the dreaded news media. I have stood in front of thousands of people over the years, preaching the gospel of media relations and AP Style. The first commandment is to assume you are always on the record.

However, and you heard it here first, there are, in fact, perfectly reasonable times to go ‘off the record’ (albeit at your own peril, so be absolutely sure you know what you’re doing).

When are those times?

  1. When they’re fishing. A reporter, or assignment desk, will call to find out if some information they have received is accurate or not. In other words, they’re trying to determine if their tip is actually a story. You will save them, and you, a lot of time, energy and trouble if you can tell them why this is not worth their effort and sometimes that means using information that is not cleared for public release. There is a caveat here – don’t try to call them off a story that really is one. That’ll come back to haunt you.
  2. When the kids are OK. In Texas, like many states, it is unlawful to use the names of juveniles in official release of information. When I was a police PIO, we had a call from a local mom who swore that her daughter had been kidnapped, when our juvenile investigator knew full well she had run away to her boyfriend’s house. Still, local newsrooms listened to the agitated parent. I had to go ‘off the record’ to tell them it was not a story and why. Almost all of those newsrooms appreciated our department for that. The one newsroom that did come out just in time to find our officers locating the daughter – at her boyfriend’s house.
  3. When offering a better understanding. In order to frame a story, it is sometimes necessary to provide information ‘not for attribution’ (your name cannot be used) or on ‘deep background’ (getting into the weeds of a certain issue). The reporter may not be able to use some specific information, but what is offered can help inform a better understanding of corollary issues that lead to a more comprehensive story.
  4. When it’s your brother-in-law. Just kidding. Family relations may or may not have a bearing on confidentiality. If you are so unfortunate as to be covered by a relative, be careful about casual conversation around the Thanksgiving table. Otherwise, your confidence level in any ‘off the record’ situation will be enhanced if you have a good, long history of working well with a particular reporter or editor.
  5. When you have to teach Government 101. Sometimes your brand new beat reporter has a brand new college degree to match, and they’re ready to set the world on fire. If you’re lucky, they have internship experience at government reporting or, at least, took a class on it. If you’re not so fortunate, you get someone who doesn’t know an ordinance from a proclamation. Having them report accurately is in your best interests so, making sure they have a good understanding follows as well. Sometimes, that involves sensitive information. Be certain the following rules are observed.

No reporter, worth his or her salt, will disregard or disavow an ‘off the record’ statement. Still, whatever the situation, there are certain sacred tenets of the practice that must be observed:

  1. Record the conversation if you are able. It only helps protect you.
  2. Not everyone has the same understanding of ‘off the record.’ You must always preface ‘off the record’ information with the very clear and unmistakable sentence, “This is off the record.” Leave no doubt.
  3. Make sure the reporter verbally acknowledges that the forthcoming material is ‘off the record.’ Make them use their words. No shrugs, mumbles or ‘uh-huhs.’
  4. State your case – no more or less than is necessary.
  5. When you’re done, state clearly and distinctly, “We’re back on the record.”

The best rule is, of course, to avoid it when you can, but be equipped to deal with it only when necessary – and, to coin a phrase, let’s be careful out there.

Tom Bryson is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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