Media Relations: “Off the Record” and “On Background” Explained
Should I go “off the record”? It’s one of the most common questions I hear from clients I assist with media relations training and support. Even just curious people who find out I work in media relations often want to know how going off the record or “speaking on background” works. What “off the record” means has been in the headlines lately, because former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci disputed whether he was “off the record” in an obscenity-laced tirade to a New Yorker reporter. In Washington, D.C., we even have a lovely upscale bar at the Hay-Adams Hotel called “Off the Record.”
I’ve talked with journalists “off the record” and “on background.” I’ve advised clients on navigating confidential information sharing many times. Using “off the record” is not a tool to be used by a novice. You have to know what you are doing and be clear.
You must be intentional about what you do and don’t want to share. Absent an “off the record” or “on background” agreement, anything you say to a journalist or captured by a recording device they use, can be reported on. In media relations training, we always warn CEOs, interviewees and spokespeople that anything they say in front of or to a journalist could be used in a report. We tell them that even if a camera, phone, microphone, or recorder does not appear to be recording, anything said near one should be considered “on the record.” If you don’t want to see the information you have in print or on the airwaves, do not say it, allude to it, or hint about it. Keep your lips zipped.
Why people go off the record or on background. So even though people like me tell you it’s safest to be “on the record” or to keep your mouth shut – why would you go “off” the record? People I’ve met and assisted have a variety of reasons for doing this. Sometimes they work for a large government agency or have been hurt by something or someone.
Sometimes people go off the record or on background because they have come across information or wrongdoing that they feel should be publicized, because it is the only way to reform or fix a system or process that affects other people. Sometimes they have been mis-treated and been retaliated against for trying to fix the problem – and they want to see the wrong righted, but they also want to protect a job, family, organization, or reputation.
The information itself may be of compelling public interest. It may reveal corruption, crime, falsehoods, mis-management, problems in government, or something else. Information shared off the record should relate to a current news story, or be so unique, scandalous, of public interest, or unusual – it should be something that a journalist would salivate to cover. Absolutely, it must also be accurate and true information. This is no place for falsehoods.
The Associated Press defines “on the record” and “off the record” in these ways and I like the clarity they give to the terms, which can seem murky when you look at other sources:
On the record. The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.
Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication.
Background. The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. AP reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record. These background briefings have become routine in many venues, especially with government officials.
Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.
In general, information obtained under any of these circumstances can be pursued with other sources to be placed on the record. This is a key point. Don’t be surprised if you tip off a reporter and they come up with a way to cover the story without you – if you told them about a good story and didn’t want to be quoted or alluded to.
Information should be verifiable and accurate. If you choose to share information off the record or on background, you should expect for your information to be vetted and corroborated by the journalist. While there is a tendency to sometimes see “unnamed sources” in reporting about the White House or political topics, the information is often verified by using multiple sources. Skilled reporters are savvy at verifying information without revealing their sources.
You should only tango with someone you trust – this is not a dance for the faint of heart. My feeling is that you should never go “off the record” or “on background” with someone you don’t trust. It is a big deal to put your reputation, career or even freedom in the hands of a journalist and his or her ethics. So you need to trust the person you talk to.
Journalists have a code of ethics (this one is from the Society for Professional Journalists) and as a group, they pride themselves on protecting sources. News outlets often have a code of ethics for their journalists and requirements for “off the record” and “on background” or anonymous sources. It’s helpful to look this information up online so you can understand the boundaries the reporter you want to talk to might be operating within. NPR addresses anonymous sources in its code of ethics. In NPR’s case (and at many other media outlets as well), editors are involved in decisions to grant sources anonymity and go off the record.
ProPublica’s code of ethics is a good example of how a news agency approaches using anonymous source. It gives you a good idea of the perspective they bring:
We strive to identify all the sources of our information, shielding them with anonymity only when they insist upon it and when they provide vital information — not opinion or speculation; when there is no other way to obtain that information; and when we know the source is knowledgeable and reliable. To the extent that we can, we identify in our stories any important bias such a source may have. If the story hinges on documents, as opposed to interviews, we describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible. We do not say that a person declined comment when he or she is already quoted anonymously. Editors have an obligation to know the identity of unnamed sources in our stories, so that editors and reporters can jointly assess the appropriateness of using their information. Sources need to understand this practice.
This is no time for flights of fancy. No reputable news outlet will allow you to speak under a false name or pay you for information. So keep your feet on the ground and focus on being truthful and accurate. The stakes are high. The one trump card journalists have in this crazy game is public interest. They will do their best not to throw you to the wolves and I’ve seen journalists go to great lengths to protect their sources.
Know the reporter and outlet you want to talk to. You may not know the reporter personally, but you can get a sense of a reporter from his or her work. Research who is covering the topic or issue you want to share information about. Do they work for the publication that the powers-that-be will pay attention to? Who has a reputation for listening? Read what he or she writes, or watch or listen to what he or she produces. What is the reporter’s style in reporting? What is the news outlet’s policy on reporting with anonymous sources, “off the record” information, or “on background” remarks? Much of this information can often be found online.
Prepare before you call or set up the meeting. You need to get your head straight. I sometimes work with people in challenging situations. Inevitably the person in this situation is aggrieved, distressed, wronged, traumatized, and wrapped up in so many details and emotions – they’ve been on such a journey to get to this point – that it’s hard for them sometimes to be clear and focus. But clarity is important. Jot down your key points and think through what you want to say. Be clear about how you feel about being referenced (or not referenced). What about your story makes it compelling? What hard evidence do you have or can you point the journalist to?
If you need help preparing, work with someone you trust. The best way to keep something quiet is not to tell anyone. Secrecy is important if you are really serious about staying “off the record” or on “deep background.” That means you can’t discuss this with very many people. Ideally you should discuss it with no one. But sometimes people need help getting ready. The more people who have the information and know the source, the more likely the information will leak and be out of your control. If you need public relations counsel to prepare and get your head straight, seek it out with someone you trust. This is not a job for the junior communications staffer, but a seasoned public relations practitioner with experience. If you hire public relations counsel, make sure there is a confidentiality clause in the contract.
Having an upfront agreement with the journalist is important. There is no “off the record” in hindsight. Here’s how it should go: You say to the journalist or reporter over the phone or in person (do not do this by email) – is now a good time to talk? Wait for an affirmative. Then you say, “I’d like to talk off the record (or on background) about something with you.” Because not everyone agrees on what “on the record” or “on background” means, you will want to clarify what the term means to you (use one of the definitions above). You might say something like “To me that means…” Wait for the journalist to agree verbally to having a conversation that is “off the record” or “on background.” You are now “off the record” or “on background” and can spill the beans. If the journalist does not agree, say thank you for their time and get off the phone or leave.
Be cautious. I typically recommend first talking verbally or in person. Do not hand over documents before you have an agreement about going off the record or on background in place. After the agreement is in place, if you have inside knowledge, you can tip off the reporter to research or sources. You may be able to tell the reporter to ask for information via FOIA or public records requests that he or she might not have thought of. Some media outlets (see the Washington Post’s page) have information on their websites about how to share information with them safely and confidentially.
Talk with the reporter about how you might be referred to in reporting, if at all. If the reporter is interested in the story, talk with them about how your identity will be protected. Even if you are “off the record” the information you share could point a finger back to you inadvertently. Typically, someone quoted in a news story as speaking on background is identified as ‘a source,’ ‘an XYZ department official,’ ‘a government office official,’ ‘a senior administrator,’ etc. The reporter will often try to couch how they refer to the source in a way that illustrates their credibility, but without giving away the identity of the source. Reporters also will want to set a context for why you are not identified.
If a reporter asks you to speak on background about something, consider the ramifications. Occasionally, I have had reporters ask a client to speak “on background” about a topic that the client was knowledgeable of, but not seeking attention for. In these situations, I talk with the client about the request and we decide whether or not to participate. These conversations often lead the reporter to new reporting angles and allow the source to speak candidly.
Is it safe to share information off the record or on background? There is always some risk to sharing sensitive information, but there can also be great rewards. Typically, reporters value their sources and will go to great lengths – some even risk jail – to protect their sources. They won’t yield to bullying and newspapers retain lawyers on staff for a reason – to protect the rights of a free press. Reporters are also fierce about protecting their sources because they don’t want to lose other sources (word can and will get around). They won’t want to damage their reputation among their colleagues either. Bungling an anonymous source can mean a journalist even loses his or her job. And they don’t want to cause harm to their sources.
There can be real risk. A young government contractor who leaked information on Russian interference in 2016 in the U.S. election system to The Intercept is currently in jail and awaiting trial, because she printed out documents on a color printer (color printers put tiny unnoticeable dots on documents that can identify when they were printed) and mailed them to a media outlet. In verifying her story, the reporter sent snapshots of the pages to a government source, who reported it up the food chain. She also emailed the media outlet from a personal email account on a work computer. Don’t do these things if you really don’t want to be caught. The publication is assisting in her legal defense and has re-evaluated its policies on anonymous sources and news gathering because of what happened but the reality is – she is in a big mess.
Listen to your gut. Sharing information “off the record” or “on background” is not a decision to be made lightly. Your intellect and logic play a role – but so does your gut. Consider the risks, but also the rewards. Listen to your intuition and do what feels right to you.
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your project, review our portfolio, sign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.