public relations

“Off the Record” is Not a Shield

I’ve been catching up on my Inside PR listening, given recent events, and was listening to episode #102 – dealing with the idea of going “off the record” with a reporter.  They used the recent Samantha Power incident where the former Barack Obama foreign policy advisor was quoted in The Scotsman newspaper calling Hillary Clinton “a monster” who would do anything to win.  

Ouch.  (And then she said “that’s off the record.”) 

The exact quote is:

“We fucked up in Ohio. In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio’s the only place they can win. She is a monster, too — that is off the record — she is stooping to anything”

She quickly tried to take back her statement by saying “oopsie, that’s off the record.” Off the record is one of those things that people are bandying about far too easily.  Reportees think that they can say what they want  and if something slips out just slyly wink at the reporter and say “that’s off the record, you know” and actually expect the reporter to honor that.

One of the Inside PR hosts, I can’t remember if it was Terry or Dave, asked if the reporter, Gerri Peev, should have resigned from The Scotsman instead of Samantha Power. 

Absolutely not.  

Power said “off the record” after stating her opinion.  Trying to hide behind that “I didn’t mean it, really – honest even!”   Clinton’s campaign demanded that Obama repudiate, or disagree with or deny, whatever the new terminology is these days, Power’s statement and Obama’s camp learned a hard lesson in media relations that day. (not that it matters much, because the wing of the electorate who are Obama-stars probably loved the quote, and cheered it on)  

They sent Power out to speak on behalf of the candidate, and apparently didn’t bother telling her (and she’s a former reporter, so she should know better) to presume that everything that is said in front of the reporter is fair game.  

It’s the first thing they need to teach people in political PR, or any kind of media relations – if a reporter hasn’t agreed to “off the record” before you sit down (not three minutes before either, I mean before they even show up) then you need to carefully measure your words. Because there’s no guarantee that once you meet the reporter they won’t say “sure it’s off the record” and then run the story again. 

Especially before and after the “interview,” these are two times that a lot of people think is safe – because the reporter has put his notebook up or is packing to leave.  Here’s a tidbit for you to think about – my best friend (my fiancee calls him my “bestest friend” since that sounds so third grade 😉 But I digress) worked as a reporter for five years, and he would keep a digital recorder in his pocket with his reporters notebook.  And before he met with someone he would turn it on, and keep it hidden under his notebook, out of view.  And he’d put it back in his pocket after the “interview” was over – problem was, it was still running.

“You didn’t say ‘X’ or ‘Y’? That’s funny, because I have it right here, and I’d swear that is your voice. Did you say that before, or after, this statement…”

Samantha Power got what she deserved, she made a statement off the cuff and expected the reporter to protect her. Even in the best of times, it’s the reporter’s discretion whether or not to allow you to go off the record.  In this case, as in most cases when I have helped media train people or worked with the press, it’s best to follow your mom’s advice.

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” (or at least stand behind what you say)

And for the statement that people will know to think twice before “trusting” the reporter with “off the record” information – good!  They should, they should always be thinking that.

Sorry Terry and Dave, I have to disagree with your sentiments on this one – “off the record” is not a shield.  It’s a gun you can shoot yourself in the foot with.


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