Who would you go off-the-record with? (2010)


Under what circumstances and with whom would you go “off-the-record” or “on background” with?


On the record, on background, not for attribution and off the record: These are prearranged agreements between a reporter and a source, which govern how specific information can be used. These deals must be agreed to beforehand, never after. A source can’t say something then claim it was “off the record.” That’s too late. When dealing with individuals who are not experienced in talking with reporters, journalists should make sure ground rules and potential consequences are clear, and then perhaps offer leeway. Of course, if the information isn’t integral to the story, a reporter can agree not to use it. If you talk to five journalists, you’ll likely get five different definitions for these terms. That’s why it’s important that a reporter clarify the use of these terms with a source before making any agreements.   – NYU School of Journalism Handbook


The decision to go off the record, on background, or not-for-attribution all depends on your relationship with that reporter.

It amazes me to see or hear of PR/PA professionals who ask to go off-the-record with someone they hardly know, not knowing that persons ethics, morals, or professional history.

A relationship with a journalist is just like any other personal or professional relationship, because it takes time to establish and work to maintain.

I had the opportunity to work in Norfolk under several U.S. Navy Captain PAO’s, and I noticed some distinct differences between the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy Public Affairs experiences.

One of the things I took away was that compared to the Army, the Navy has relatively few large naval bases where one could spend an entire career. What this does for their PAO’s is give them the opportunity to develop relationships with the local Norfolk-based, San Diego-based, Hawaii-based media representatives over the course of many years.

Many of the military correspondents in these towns stay in their jobs and while the PAO may move to different positions within the same location, he or she still maintains those connections.

Anytime my boss went off-the-record, it is because he already had a long-standing, professional relationship with that reporter.

The Army is at a disadvantage because we have so many more bases all over the world that, other than the Fort Bragg’s and the Fort Hood’s of the world, we only spend short amounts of time working with the local media representatives before we move on to some other location 12-24 months later.

I think the Army is at a disadvantage in this respect because we seldom have the chance to build the types of media relationships that some of the Navy PAOs do.

This may be one of the reasons why some in our branch of service seem to use “off-the-record” a bit more loosely than maybe they should – because the experience just isn’t there.

So who would you go off-the-record with? I don’t do it unless I have some professional history with the person and there is mutual trust.

It can be advantageous for both parties to be able to go off-the-record or on background, but it’s not something that should be done with any media rep.

Mike Nicholson

I've spent my career working in a variety of Strategic Communications, Public Relations, Public Affairs, Information Operations, and Executive Outreach positions. With a history of planning, preparing, executing, and assessing communication strategies in the U.S. and abroad, I use this site to write, think and share lessons learned on organizational communications.

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