What does off-the-record mean? – Media Training Advice
October 10, 2023

Very often, during our Media Training courses, at some point, we will have a discussion about the phrase “off the record”. It often starts during the role-play press interviews when our media trainer/journalists put course participants through a realistic but entirely confidential role-play press interview. Since all of our trainers are working journalists, they know the questions that journalists will ask, so they will start with general questions about what is going on, why the organisation is doing something or what their reaction might be to a particular situation. Depending on the answers they get, they will then push a bit further on these general questions or move on to something more specific. As we point out in our Media Training workshops, there is an opportunity here for the interviewee to take control of the interview and move it to an area that suits them. If this is also newsworthy, the journalist will be quite happy to follow and be guided by the interviewee, who is, after all, the expert

During these practice press interviews, we often ask one or more participants a question “off the record”. During the discussion afterwards, when we give the participants an idea of the story we would have written, plus some practical tips and advice they can take forward for the next interview, we’ll discuss what exactly “off the record” means. What is interesting is that very often, the media trainer and the representatives from the organisation’s media relations team and perhaps the PR company will all have different ideas of what this term means and, very importantly, how any information given out on this basis will be used – or not used – by the journalist.

What does “off-the-record” mean?

Essentially, for most journalists, information that they receive “off the record” from a source, be that a press officer, a public relations professional, the spokesperson for a company, or indeed anybody who represents that organisation, can be used, but will not be attributed to the person who provided it. In our Media Training courses for lawyers, for instance, given their desire to be precise and define terms, we sometimes drill down further. How exactly will information given off the record be used as a question, they will ask. The answer is that sometimes it might just be stated as fact in the article or by the reporter doing a broadcast interview.

On other occasions, the journalist might use the exact quote or precise words in the off-the-record comment, but again, without attributing it to anyone in particular, they might use a phrase such as “One source told me that…” The Financial Times, you will notice, uses the phrase “People close to the deal said that…” If you read a print article about politics or see a political correspondent on television using the phrase “One cabinet minister told me that…” or “XYZ said one MP to me”, this information is given off the record, and most respectable journalists will check with the person providing that information whether they can actually quote it and use these terms to describe where it came from.

Deep background – what does it mean?

This term tends to be used by US-based journalists, but in fact, it’s a practice adopted by the media in the UK and across Europe. It essentially means that the information given can’t be quoted word for word in an article or used directly in a way that could identify where it came from, but it is intended to increase the channel’s understanding of the issue and help them to report more accurately, putting the facts into context.

In our media training seminars, we make the point that off-the-record briefings can be useful. They are a way of getting information out into the public arena in a discreet, arm’s-length manner. One PR work we work with explained that she gave some off-the-record briefing to some journalists to explain why her company had not gone through with a merger which had been widely publicised. The company didn’t want to make an official comment, but they did want the media and, ultimately, the markets to understand the rationale behind pulling out of this deal.

However, the risk in other situations is that, as one of our media trainers/journalists points out, “If the story’s big enough, you’ll burn your contact.” In other words, if a journalist receives some information on background or off the record and their editor says “We want to put a name to this,” the journalist will make a quick ruthless judgement – who do they need to keep on their side – the contact, or the editor who will be giving them more work and decide on the direction of their career? I’m sure you can guess.

The other danger of organisations using a lot of off-the-record briefings is the effect it can have on employees’ morale and its image among other parties, such as clients, suppliers and partners. An organisation where people regularly brief the media in this way can look like one that is unhappy and lacks direction and cohesion.

Should you speak “off-the-record” to a journalist?

This is one question that we often discuss in our Media Training courses. The short answer given that speaking to the media is very much an art rather than a science is that it depends. If you are a senior manager or a member of the comms team and you have the blessing of the organisation, and you trust the journalist (no, really!) to treat this off-the-record comment with respect, then, yes, go ahead. As we say above, it does have its uses. Otherwise, we advise participants in our Media Training courses to adopt a safety-first approach and just assume everything they might say to a journalist can be published and attributed to them. You have been warned!

If you’d like more insight and advice on how to handle the media and make the most of media interviews, then please do get in touch.

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