Opinion: Off-the-record comment benefits us all

PROs who listened to Today on Monday might have taken heart from an exchange between presenter James Naughtie and Defence Secretary John Reid over Chatham House's assertion that the war in Iraq had boosted al-Qaeda.

Naughtie appeared to be winning the verbal duel but shot himself in the foot when he suggested that members of Reid's department disagreed with the minister's robust defence of America's post-handover actions in Iraq.

Reid retorted by asking Naughtie if he was going to name the staff in question. To which, of course, Naughtie could only reply with a rather limp 'no', effectively cutting off his own line of argument. Despite Reid's rants, it was obvious that Naughtie wasn't going to name his sources - an unsavoury task that Radio 4 tends to leave to government departments.

Off-the-record and background briefings are an established part of the political process. Lobby journalists and government press officers understand the rules and, with a few high-profile exceptions, tend to stick to them. But in the corporate world the rules are far less defined, and many CEOs and corporate communicators are scared rigid by the idea of going off the record. Which is a shame because without these briefings - which benefit PROs by enabling them to clarify points - journalists write from a far less informed viewpoint.

Admittedly a great deal depends on the experience of the journalist and the depth of the relationship, but it shouldn't be that complex.

Often it is simply down to remembering to tell the journalist that you are talking off the record. I once fell out with a national journalist with whom I had a conversation which I presumed was on the record and duly reported. When he complained I could only point out that as a journalist I presume every given piece of information to be a potential story. It's in the DNA.

Unfortunately, this person has never spoken to me since, which is a shame as we were useful to each other. Journalists' sources are their lifeblood and they know very well that if they shaft sources they will not be able to go back to them again in a hurry.

Despite the paranoia that exists, I am convinced that most abuses of off-the-record briefings can be attributed to cock-up rather than conspiracy.

Or, in the case of young journalists, a lack of confidence to stand up to the demands of their editors to produce a story.

There are many aspects of modern journalism that are not honourable, but the off-the-record briefing is more respected than most PROs believe.

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