Off the Record, Embargoes and Other Media Relations Pitfalls

Media interviewIf you’ve been doing PR for any length of time, you’ve received a call like this: “Why did that reporter use those market share numbers? I thought you called him after the interview and told him all of that information was off the record.”  

Executives are sometimes confused about what is fair game for a reporter, and what is not … and exactly what off the record, as background or embargo mean. This post will help clear up the misconceptions and boost understanding of some of the subtleties and use of these media tactics.

For example, let’s start with the generally accepted definitions of the terms:

  • On the record – all statements made are directly quotable and attributable by title and name to the person commenting;
  • As background – all statements are directly quotable, but not attributed by title or name, to the person commenting;As deep background – all information revealed in the interview is usable, but not as direct quotes and not for attribution to the person commenting by name or title;
  • Off the record – all information provided is for the reporter’s understanding of a subject or issue only and is not to be made public in any way; and
  • Embargo – providing of news releases and information (and often access to experts) in advance of the intended release date, in order to provide journalists with more time to understand and develop their stories.

All of these media relations techniques have value, but they also have risks, partly because different people and organizations have different definitions. Generally, we counsel clients not to say anything that they don’t want to see in print, on the internet or on the air right away. Period.

Now, there are some very rare cases where the advantages of using these techniques may outweigh the inherent risks, but you have to be cautious. For starters, before considering using any of these tactics, make sure you:

  • Have an established relationship with, and trust of, the journalist;
  • Agree upfront  with the journalist – before the information is passed or interview is conducted – that she/he will honor the off-the-record or background status or embargo timing; and
  • Agree upfront with the reporter on the definition of the approach you use. What “as background” means to the reporter may be different than what it means to you, so spell out your conditions in advance so there’s no misunderstanding.

If you don’t have all those assurances secured before the interview, you’re putting your executive – and perhaps your own job – in peril.

Beyond that, take extra care to make sure everyone involved is operating by the same set of rules. And then go out of your way to make sure then is no room for misunderstanding.

For example, in an off-the-record situation, one way to mitigate risk is to clearly identify during the interview when off the record starts and stops, as in: “Everything I say from here on out is off the record, until I say we are back on the record.” It helps to tell the reporter than you will clearly signal when the off-the-record comments start and stop with a symbolic gesture, such as putting a pen down during the off-the-record comments and then picking the pen back up when going back on the record.

A few additional warnings about these special situations:

  • Some reporters and media outlets will not agree to your terms or conditions. If that’s the case, respect their view, and make sure they understand why you won’t be able to provide the information or interview.
  • Many reporters use social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter – so make sure that they understand that those outlets are included in your agreement as to what is on the record, what is on background and what is embargoed.
  • When you go off the record, unless you get an agreement explicitly prohibiting this, you have to assume that the reporter will somehow try to get the information you provided confirmed by another source.
  • With bloggers and citizen journalists who are not trained in journalistic practices or bound by professional ethics, embargoes are risky and, therefore, much less commonly offered.
  • During an embargo period, you have to assume that the journalist may share embargoed information with a third party in order to get quotes or analysis, usually with some assurance that the third party will also honor the embargo.
  • Once embargoed information becomes public – even if it’s because a citizen journalist or blogger didn’t honor the embargo – it becomes fair game for publication or broadcast by everyone. So realize that one errant Tweet by a blogger at your event can destroy your timing plan.
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