Wednesday, November 01, 2017

A priceless explainer on why you should skip "off the record" in interviews

Having worked at the highest levels of government and with media outlets around the world, I've participated in every variation of off the record: background, deep background, off the record, and of course, on the record conversations with reporters. But when clients today ask me--usually in training situations--how to actually "do" off the record, I tell them simply to avoid it.

Generally, I do that out of an abundance of caution. It's easy to screw up off the record conversations if you are not well versed in the practice, as did the executive I used to work with who would say to reporters, "This is just off the cuff," and then proceed, not having actually gone off the record. Many times, the source in question wants to voice an unpopular opinion without taking the heat for having his name attached, which is too bad but not worthy of off the record status. Others get quoted and blame the reporter for misquoting, a less complicated method that is still pretty apparent to those of us who do this stuff for a living. The motivation is the same: You want to disclose stuff, without risk. And while we're on the topic of tactics that do not work, sending an email to many reporters titled "OFF THE RECORD" doesn't hold them to anything, nor does saying into a microphone at a private luncheon "This is off the record." Email and microphones are not the channels of choice for off the record conversations, dears.

I stumbled across an even better rationale for avoiding off-the-record recently, from Benjamin Wittes, the editor of Lawfare, posting on Facebook. He wrote: 
Many years ago, when I was a young reporter at Legal Times, I got to know a man named David Margolis, who was a legendary long-serving career staffer in the Deputy Attorney General's office. David impressed the hell out of me because of his rule about talking to the press: He only talked on the record. If he was prepared to say it at all, he was prepared to have you quote him saying it. I respected that a lot, and as we kept in touch for many years over many sensitive subjects, he never wavered from that basic commitment. 
At one point, I asked him his "opinion" about a matter, and he blurted out: "Oh, opinions are like assholes; everyone's got one." My editor removed it from my story for reasons of taste, and David later called me when the piece ran and chastised me about it. "That's the best quote I've ever given anyone!" I had let him off the hook and he called me on it. 
I've thought about David's policy a lot over the last few weeks as I've tried to decide how public and transparent I should be. I'm not as pure on the point as he was. I have gone off the record a few time. But my bottom line is the same as his. There are enough people talking anonymously. If it's right and proper for me to be saying anything at all, it's better that I should attach my name to it. So that's what I'm doing. 
And that means something: if you don't see my name attached to something, if you see that sources said something, if you read about leaks, it's not me. When I talk, for better or for worse, you'll know it.

Go and do the same, communicators, and urge your experts and spokesfolk likewise.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Viewminder)

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