Analysis: Off-the-record - a question of trust

Off-the-record briefing is a dangerous practice for the unwary, but it can also be of great mutual benefit to PROs and journalists. Hannah Marriott and Tom Williams ask both camps to clarify their rules of engagement

Going off-the-record fills many PROs with dread, and the recent high-profile jailing of New York Times writer Judith Miller, held in contempt of court for refusing to name a source, shows how relations between journalists and anonymous sources can be fraught with danger.

PROs who are most comfortable talking to journalists off the record tend, naturally, to be more experienced, both in the modus operandi of the media and in the trustworthiness of the particular journalist.
Less experienced PROs  are generally more nervous when asked if they wish to brief off-the-record. Plenty decline the option and seem as if they would rather terminate the conversation than, say, agree an untraceable course of action.

Some are perhaps bruised from bad experiences, but more often they appear to feel off-the-record chats are best left to the boss.
Many PROs are unapologetic for believing – and telling journalists  – that there is 'no such thing' as off-the-record guidance.

Ann Mealor, CIPR deputy director, says: 'There's some truth in the saying that there is no such thing as an off-the-record conversation, and in the interests of transparency it's best to avoid them if possible. But it comes down to how much you trust the journalist.'

Neil Bennett, managing partner, Maitland
'Off-the-record briefing is dangerous, but it is also an honour system on which the whole world of journalism and communications relies.
'Organisations are naturally held to account for anything they say on the record, so they will always be cautious about anything they say with quote marks attached. If there were no ability to give journalists background briefings, the media would be dull and uninformative.
'There are many shades of off-the-record: not for attribution, background briefing, the ubiquitous source and the downright confidential. And different journalists interpret them in different ways. To navigate effectively you must know your journalists and define your terms exactly.'

Martin Paterson, Food and Drink Federation
'If you don't wish to see something in print – don't say it. However, if you want to qualify a piece of information, say so in advance.

'I advise my team not to use the term off-the-record: they are official spokespeople and should have little to say that does not stand on the record.

'Sometimes to illustrate a position, information outside their official remit will be given "for background" or "not for attribution". This is not spin, but a tacit agreement not to attribute (or in some cases repeat) the information.

'I have seen my off-the-record guidance in print. It is always put down to misunderstanding, which only underlines my initial advice.'

Ben McCarthy, director of media, Porter Novelli
'We always advise clients that there is no such thing as off-the-record. The rule is that they should say nothing to a journalist that they don't want printed or broadcast.

'Of course we are aware that journalists do receive off-the-record briefings. Having worked as a reporter for Sky News, ITN and the BBC, I know there are many stories where journalists benefit from off-the-record information and that information often doesn't get reported. I found many police forces would provide background information in some cases, but this would normally only happen when a good relationship had already developed. Our rule of thumb is that off-the-record is off limits.'

Journalists love 'Deep Throats', and pride themselves on the number of contacts they have with whom they feel mutually comfortable in off-the-record territory.

The best scoops often rely on a series of off-the-record chats. Ears across a newsroom will always prick up when one reporter overhears a colleague uttering the phrase – such territory implies an element of frisson: news, it could be argued, in its rawest sense.

Birmingham Evening Mail editor Steve Dyson says: 'If PROs want to protect their identity and leave the reporter free to verify the information elsewhere, then tell them it's off-the-record.'

He adds: 'Experienced PROs, especially those who are ex-journalists, understand it – it's a chance to give journalists everything to make a story accurate, without the information being sourced back to you.'

'In controversial stories, if all you give is the official quote, the finished article is likely to be less accurate as the journalist won't have the full details.'

Chartered Institute of Journalists secretary-general Dominic Cooper says: 'Off-the-record has always been an accepted way of working for journalists. PR people shouldn't have anything to fear – but if you are about to brief off-the-record, you need to say so explicitly beforehand.'

John Waples, business editor, Sunday Times
'The two phrases on- and off-the-record should be scrapped. Few know what they mean and even if they do, they are too open to abuse.

'In its strictest sense, off-the-record means the information should never be used and I have never understood the reason to sign up to that agreement. What's the point of being told it in the first place? If someone wants to pass on some delicate information but doesn't want to leave any fingerprints, they should say the conversation is unattributable.

'In the end, a relationship between a PR executive and a journalist is one built on trust. If both parties abuse that, whether it's on- or off-the-record, it doesn't mean a thing.'

Kamal Ahmed, exec. editor, news, The Observer
'The difficulty for journalists is that people outside the business use off-the-record as a blanket term covering lots of different sorts of conversation. This can cause confusion.

'Off-the-record means not for reporting, although now I think this should always be made clear with the extra words "not for publication". If a journalist wishes to use any information after an off-the-record conversation then another approach should be made to the person. "Unattributable" means the information is able to be used in the story, but is not for quoting using the person's name.

Background briefing means something similar. PR professionals need to understand the difference.'

David Parsley, editor, City AM
'There is no clear understanding of what off-the-record means. Many people I meet believe it means "not for publication", as it tends to in the US. But I have always taken off-the-record to mean "unattributable". So whatever was said can be written but not attributed to any individual or company. Hence "sources close to..." and other such phrases.

'Another term that appears to have become more common in recent years is "deep background". It's a PR-created term, but what does it mean? Is it a way of trying to tell me I'm very lucky to be told something incredibly secretive? I just write it down and put it in the story if it's interesting.

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