Viewers of the new BBC drama Press may feel shocked at the ruthless and morally questionable behaviour of some journalists.
Let’s be clear that not all journalists behave like this. But the programme does raise an interesting question – what should you do when a journalist asks you for information ‘off the record’?
For some, it’s a phrase that sends shivers down the spine – the rules of engagement are notoriously unclear.
According to the Collins English dictionary, off the record means ‘not intended for publication or disclosure; confidential’.
A journalist might ask an ‘off the record’ question when they are looking for an unofficial, unattributed steer to get to the bottom of a story.
Journalists should never be afraid to ask for information. But, as an interviewee or source, you need to be able to trust the journalist to use ‘off the record’ information in an agreed way. Misusing such information may be unethical but it does happen.
The problem lies in interpretation – can information be published as fact from an unattributed source? Can it be reported as rumour? Will it stand up in court if the source cannot be identified?
From a PR perspective, we aim to provide as much information as possible to assist journalists in writing a fair and accurate story. If any information is confidential, we will say so – and explain why.
We occasionally provide unattributable background briefings to journalists but only when there is an established, trusted relationship.
If you are asked for an ‘off the record’ statement or briefing, here are our top three tips:
1. Buy yourself some time – ask for the writer’s deadline, consider your response and then reply with a written ‘on the record’ statement.
2. Don’t panic and say something you will later regret. It is better to keep responses ‘on the record’ rather than enduring a sleepless night wondering how your response will be interpreted.
3. If you can’t provide the requested information, explain why. Be helpful. If you can’t give a certain piece of information, is there anything else you can provide to the journalist that will enhance their story?