Can We Talk Off the Record?
The book Fire and Fury sits at the top of the New York Times' best sellers list and every other list you can find, despite continued criticism of author Michael Wolff's accuracy and tactics to get interviews with President Trump and other members of the White House.
Wolff says he was granted access to Trump during and after the election campaign in 2016 because Trump liked an article he had written about him for the Hollywood Reporter. Wolff says people who he interviewed for the book knew they were being interviewed and everything was on the record.
While I don't doubt what he's saying, anyone being interviewed by a journalist needs to know what off the record is, what it means, and why they should avoid doing it.
A Dangerous Game
When I do media training workshops for my clients, I always warn each group not to answer questions from reporters off the record. In fact, I say if they ever get a question from a reporter such as “Can we talk off the record”, or “Off the record, could I ask you…” they should hear alarm bells going off and see big red flags waving madly in the air.
While people, mainly in government and sports, talk to reporters off the record every day, there’s no reason for the people I train to ever talk off the record. Most of my clients are association leaders, CEO’s and other business types, and trained professionals such as those in the medical profession. They’re typically not very experienced in doing interviews with the media and very few have relationships with reporters. As a result, there’s no reason to answer off the record questions.
I always tell the people I work with that if they’re asked to speak off the record by a reporter, just reply that all your answers are on the record. It’s simple, but effective.
Here's Why You Don't Play the Game
There are several reasons you don’t want to speak off the record and the biggest concern I have is the person who provided the confidential information will eventually have their identify revealed.
I’m not suggesting reporters will immediately turn around and throw the person under the bus, but eventually it may happen. The source’s name could be allowed to slip in a normal conversation involving the reporter, or perhaps the journalist may be put under pressure to reveal their source. The reporter may have no other choice than revealing the identity of the person who gave them the information off the record. Fortunately it does not happen often.
Another consideration is that once a person talks off the record, it becomes much easier for the same reporter to ask them to do it for a second or a third time. You never want to put yourself in that position.
There’s lot of grey area too. Reporters have different ideas of what off the record means. Some guard everything related to their source. They just use the information as a lead and work to either get the information verified by somebody who will talk on record, or perhaps get the story confirmed by another off the record source and then make a judgement call on whether to go ahead with the story.
Other reporters may not be as discreet and could go on the evening news and say “A prominent health care executive in Saskatchewan has told me….” And as soon as that happens, people will start speculating who the prominent health care executive is. They may, or may not be right when they do their speculating.
I don’t mean to suggest that reporters play fast and loose with their sources. It rarely happens that somebody’s name gets disclosed because it doesn’t work real well for the reporter either. At the same time, simply refusing to speak off the record keeps everything clean.
A Two-Way Street
Off the record statements are usually part of a two-way street involving reporters.
Experienced media spokespeople and politicians quite often have good relationships with reporters, and regularly talk with them on an off the record basis. They don’t reveal embarrassing information, but instead share juicy details they’ve learned about opposition politicians and others. They know their identity will be protected because of the relationship with the reporter.
It’s part of a reporter’s job to get off the record information. I tell the people I work with that they shouldn’t get offended when it happens, just politely tell the reporter that all their answers are on the record.
Don't Try to Take it Back
I also caution the people I work to avoid trying to take back comments they make to reporters.
At times, a person being interviewed will toss out some juicy details that they didn’t intend to. They shouldn’t expect the reporter to avoid using those comments as soon as they say something along the lines of “But you can’t use that”, or “You can’t quote me on that.” It’s too late. It clearly was an interview and you said something you shouldn’t. That’s not the reporter’s fault, it’s yours.
The reporter is fully within their rights to use that information on the air. In some cases they won’t. Reporters are intelligent enough to understand the optics of the situation and they may let you get away with it, especially if you’re inexperienced. However, if you’re somebody with media experience such as a politician, don’t expect to get off the hook.
A Final Word
Reporters are trained to keep asking questions, worded a little differently, to try to get the answer they want. Once again, that’s their job.
I find inexperienced people being interviewed feel pressure to provide a different answer because they most often realize the reporter is asking the same question. Avoid the temptation to change your answer just to keep the reporter happy and more than anything else, don’t talk off the record just to get rid of the reporter.
Take the high road. It’s usually less traveled anyway.