Do you want to influence the story? Then you need to talk to reporters.
An off-the-record conversation means that reporters can use the information offered as part of building blocks to form a hypothesis. It means they can use the information I offer to create their own conclusions without attributing the source to me.
It would be almost impossible for me to do my job without off-the-record conversations. I have never regretted a single conversation.
Success With the Media
I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) because I believe that organizations need to look inward to get better media results.
I use contents from the book for this article.
Some believe that we should not talk to reporters. I maintain that not talking leaves you without influence; you are committing yourself to a negative story. The trick is to know how to talk to the media.
This is the twelth in a series of articles on, “The Art of the Interview.”
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, radio and television; over fifty national and regional awards. Post-Master’s Certificate of Advanced Study, Johns Hopkins University.
Off-the-record conversations are the lifeblood of interactions between spokespeople and the media. But throughout my career, I have read documents or attended courses warning me not to engage in these exchanges. “If you do not want it to appear on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, then you should not use off-the-record conversations,” they suggest. I had an editor for a major newspaper tell me that he forbids his employees from engaging in this practice. Oh, if he only knew how often his employees disregarded his direction.
I understand why some have great apprehension regarding the use of off-the-record conversations. First and foremost, the term has no specific meaning. You can go to Wikipedia or any journalism source for a breakdown of terms, but they are essentially meaningless. Whether you decide to use off-the-record conversations or not depends on two factors: whether you trust the reporter you are talking to and whether both of you have agreed to what the term means.
To me, an off-the-record conversation means that reporters can use the information offered as part of building blocks to form a hypothesis. It means they can use the information I offer to create their own conclusions without attributing the source to me.
Some documents suggest that information provided during off-the-record conversations cannot be used in the article or report; it’s for background use only. That’s silly. If I’m providing information, I’m doing it specifically to influence the reporter and the story. I want the information to be considered or used. There is no sense in providing information if someone’s ethics prohibit its use. This is especially true during breaking stories where reporters are rushing to conclusions.
Regardless of the circumstances, if there is breaking news for the wrong reasons, it’s in everyone’s best interest to correct the misperception before the story embarrasses everyone. No one wants to say that the Governor or CEO is misinformed for the record, so do it off-the-record. Yes, I understand the sensitivities involved, but no one profits from misinformation, regardless of the source.
Because of my rank and position within an organization, a statement made by me may not need collaboration from another source. Generally speaking, it takes multiple sources providing off-the-record information to allow a reporter to offer a public conclusion.
It would be almost impossible for me to do my job without off-the-record conversations. I have never regretted a single conversation. Not once has the use of this strategy backfired. For the most part, I have been able to trust the media. I engage in trusting relationships with the media quickly and easily. All this is much easier if you have an established working relationship with a reporter, but it’s also possible to engage in limited trusting relationships with unknown journalists.
If the reporter represents a legitimate news organization that operates on a daily basis and is open to an off-the-record conversation where both the reporter and the person being interviewed agree to a definition of what off-the-record means, then there is little to discourage it.
Most journalists have been taught by or belong to organizations that encourage or demand a code of conduct that protects sources and encourages the responsible use of the information. A majority of news managers understand the necessity of protecting sources and information.
There is a code of honor among most journalists. Generally speaking, off-the-record conversations are an accepted part of reporting. Editors at public forums may say that they are discouraged, but they are stretching the truth. Some in top management may officially disapprove them, but most reporters engage in the practice.
I do not engage in off-the-record conversations with journalists from weekly or community newspapers, cable outlets (that do not offer news on a daily basis), unknown talk show hosts, freelance reporters, podcasters, or bloggers who do not subscribe to a written code of journalistic ethics.
With new and untested reporters, I will use off-the-record conversations slowly and carefully. With out-of-town reporters, I will use these discussions sparingly. With the nationals, I don’t use them at all with the exception of newspapers or electronics with exceptional journalistic standards or with referrals from verified trusted sources.
With reporters with whom I have established a long and fruitful relationship, my off-the-record conversations are wide-ranging.
Within the off-the-record conversation, I can form my thoughts. I can run “trial balloons.” I can use this give-and-take process to establish a variety of defenses, take stock of the reporter’s knowledge, establish who (not by name) is talking to the media, how many people are talking, their level of knowledge, the documents they are providing, what the reporter and editors are thinking, and many other factors.
Reporters and spokespeople sometimes see themselves as partners in the process of figuring out an event. Their cooperation serves each other’s interest. It’s a two-way street for intelligence gathering.
Remember, your organization is insisting that its version of the truth is correct and the reporter is offering sources that say otherwise. Neither of you “know” for certain who is correct, so it’s often in your collective best interest to figure it out for yourselves.
In most of these joint explorations, your organization wins because sources always overplay their hands (OK, they lie). It may not stop the story, but it will significantly lessen the effect.
So what does the reporter get? Considering how most stories unfold, not that much.
The reporter does get information or context quickly. But many observers would be surprised to learn that the reporter eventually (within a day or two) has access to 90 percent of the information “owned” by the spokesperson.
During any significant event, outside spokespeople, employees, connected insiders, available research, or other sources will provide reporters with most of the information they seek. Over the course of the next several days, media will obtain the rest through additional sources.
They need me to “clarify” their information, but they will get what they are looking for more often than not. As stated earlier, there comes a point when the spokesperson does not wonder who is talking to the media, but who isn’t.
These conversations usually happen during big news stories where very little remains a secret. Generally speaking, they do not occur during day-to-day events, but if things get hot, suddenly reporters know more about the issue than you.
Obviously, the spokesperson is not going to gain access to the names of employees or other pertinent information that would lead one to establish their identity. As stated, I have no interest in establishing the identity of employees or detractors. Within the context of a breaking story, what purpose would it serve? I have never asked a media source for this information. Even if I was interested, the reporter would refuse to tell me.
There is always some information that is confidential, and it will remain that way unless made public by insiders. The information I hold back is a result of conversations with investigators, executives, or specialists. This is often done to protect an investigation, legitimate corporate secrets, or to protect the safety of employees. State and federal Freedom of Information Act laws that prohibit the release of certain information (i.e., medical or psychological matters) often affect these issues.
All of this is crucial to understanding why it’s very important to release bad news all at once. You do not want to make a one-day story into a two-or three-day event because of continuous leaks. In addition, it greatly enhances your organization’s reputation for honesty by getting the negative news out first. The next chapter explores this issue at length.
The Quality of Information
In the final analysis, it’s not the information exchanged that is important, but the quality of information. Reporters want to know if their source is accurate. You want the opportunity to refute obviously inaccurate information. Often I will ask to go off-the-record and have a frank conversation without worrying about every word I say. Once all elements are clearly understood, then I will go back on the record and provide the “official” version.
I may provide about 1,000 words of off-the-record conversation, yet offer just a few words on the record. This tactic helps me to form the right words within the nuances and complexities of the conversation.
There are reports where there are 15 references to “sources say” (that would be me on an off-the-record basis) and one sentence attributed to me stating that, “The spokesperson declined to respond” when asked about protected or investigative issues.
Off-the-record conversations clearly have their place in the exchange of information between reporters and spokespeople. While I’m not quite sure that “occasional” public affairs representatives or those at every level should use off-the-record conversations, full-time spokespersons will find the tactic not only useful but also necessary, especially when explaining context.
Success With the Media
For more information on good organizational and media relations, see “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X. Your reviews are appreciated.
See my website at http://leonardsipes.com.
Contact me at [email protected].