Is that ‘on background’ or ‘on the record’? How to use these terms with journalists

Companies sometimes find themselves in a muddle over the use of ‘on background’ interviews, so what does it mean and when should it be used?

‘on background’ or 'on the record': Andrew Marshall advises when to use these terms
‘on background’ or 'on the record': Andrew Marshall advises when to use these terms

‘On background’ is one of several pieces of jargon relating to how journalists can use information, along with: ‘off the record’, ‘not for attribution’, ‘on the record’ and ‘with quote checks’.

It’s an Americanism that has become more popular here and it’s the source of the most confusion.

Many journalists take ‘on background’ to mean they can use information provided, but not disclose their source in an article.

However, some clients conflate the term with an off-the-record discussion – where a reporter needs explicit permission to use anything from the interview.

This divergence matters.

If you’re commenting on a broad topic like regulatory policy, you can’t easily be identified. But if it’s your company’s plans, then the source is fairly obvious.

Once you’ve said something, your leverage to say “please don’t write about that until October” is weaker.

This begs the question of why and when a company would want to speak ‘on background’.

One reason is to get the measure of a new journalist and establish rapport by creating a good impression while limiting risk.

Some outlets – including the Financial Times – play along, especially for a major company.

They say: “I’ll come back if I want to use anything and we’ll agree what can be put on the record.”

Other journalists don’t want the inefficiency of doing two interviews – especially from a marginal source.

A somewhat related reason is that speaking 'on background' allows the spokesperson to be more interesting and stimulate further interest from the journalist.

This can work, but it needs careful consideration of the relationship between what you say 'on background' and 'on the record'.

If there’s too big a gap – lots of punchy views and industry gossip 'on background', boring sales-speak 'on the record' – you simply turn off the journalist.

Journalists want to be able to cite sources on business stories.

At a first meeting with a reporter 'on background', don’t talk about subjects where you are unlikely to want to go 'on the record'.

There may be sensitive topics where you could to say something cautious later, so think through the relationship between what you are saying now and later ‘on the record’ quotes.

Your ‘on background’ messaging should lead logically to future print comment.

Some clients are happy to provide 'on background' views on issues, with the aim of helping inform coverage that might assist them commercially.

But the idea that journalists will explicitly trade lots of ‘on background’ information for the occasional ‘on the record’, boring comment is overdone.

It may exist in places, particularly for big firms in areas like M&A advisory or consultancy, but not as much as some believe.

Finally, consider when ‘on background’ may not be useful.

Often speaking with a journalist ‘on the record’, especially when you have strong things to say or news to convey, is more effective with fewer hidden risks.

Andrew Marshall is vice-chairman of Cognito

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