Anthony Hilton: Reporters take the off-the-record bait

One of the more spectacular PR own goals I can recall was in a confidential internal briefing, circulated within the London Stock Exchange at the time of its first merger attempt with Deutsche Boerse five years ago.

I fondly kept my copy and remain tickled by the section on what to do if the talks failed: 'On the record refuse to comment; off the record blame the Germans.'

It is a peculiar weakness of journalists that they are much more inclined to believe what people tell them  if it is off the record – perhaps because we too easily believe that if someone is telling us something not for publication, there is no point in their telling untruths. The reality of course is rather different – it is well known that a huge amount of off-the-record information makes it into print. On top of that, it is a rare person who can tell a truth seriously damaging to him or herself. 

So off the record is seen quite often as a way of slipping a particular line through the journalists' defences when their guard is down. We see a lot of this in print these days  in the private equity world. There is so much money sloshing around that competition for deals is ferocious and inevitably the losers outnumber the winners. Naturally the losers don't like being seen as losers.

Now, you almost never see anyone from the private equity industry quoted about a current deal, but almost every deal that fails to be consummated is attributed to the 'unquantifiable size' of the pension fund deficit, or the 'excessive' demands for top-ups from pension fund trustees. This happened recently with a non-consummated deal I was close to and where the pension issue was irrelevant. But a reader would never have known that from the coverage. The private equity guys  briefed off the record that it was the deficit rather than their misjudgment which killed the deal – and that was the line that got into print.

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