“Off the record” is gray area for journalists and public relations professionals alike. As a reporter, if someone tells me they’re going to talk to me “off the record,” I normally take that to mean they’re willing to give me information, but don’t want that informaiton attributed to them. (I usually ask if I can use the information. If I’m told no, I will reply, “Than why did you tell me in the first place?”) How can folks in the public relations industry know what they’re getting into when they decide to “go off the record” in a media interview?
Reporters absolutely love it when a public relations pro goes off the record. It’s like a gift from heaven, because it usually means the public relations rep is going to give up the goods on a story, or give you another story entirely. But many times the off the record conversation will simply be a way for the public relations rep to spin a story.
My advice about going off the record is this: Explain yourself immediately. “This is off the record, not for attribution, and for background only. I don’t want to see any of this in your story because that’s not the intent. I’m merely trying to give you a better idea of what the situation is.” That’s a bit wordy, but you get the picture.
Also, understand the concept of silence when it comes to being on the phone with a reporter. In person, body language and eye contact can tell you so much. On the phone, it’s all about silence. Give a public relations rep enough rope (i.e., enough silent time) and they’ll usually hang themselves. The biggest mistakes public relations reps have made with me on the phone has been during the pauses in the conversation. A good publicist will wait out a pause or ask if the conversation is over.
Going off the record can be beneficial part of public relations. It gives you the opportunity to explain your side of a situation better and it also shows the reporter that you trust them. But when the time is spent making accusations or going on a verbal rampage, it is wasted and can come back to hurt you. Use time spent “off the record” wisely.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.