Off the record or simply off the cuff?

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

Is there any such thing as ‘off the record’?

Researching for an up and coming PR Academy workshop on modern media management I could not help but be drawn to an article Roy Greenslade in the Guardian: “Why speaking to journalists ‘off the record’ doesn’t guarantee anonymity’. My first thought was to disagree with his definition of the term but then I realised the more significant issue was that a term used so often by journalists and PRs meant different things depending on who you asked.

Roy Greenslade was commenting on the recent case of an unknown (but much guessed at) senior Tory who was said to have characterised the party’s grassroots activists as “mad swivel eyed loons.” The remark which has now been reported widely in the media (so much so that it has even gained the ‘-gate’ suffix as in ‘swivelgate’) was said to have been made in to journalists lunching at a restaurant in Westminster as Tory in question walked past their table and was asked about a government defeat in the House of Commons. Obviously the story has caused the Conservative Party embarrassment and has been followed by the usual official denials.

In his article Roy Greenslade defines off-the-record as “… it simply means that it is reportable as long as the source is not identified.” My understanding of the definition (and I can site academic textbooks such as Bland, Theaker and Wragg’s ‘Effective Media Relations’) is that off-the-record means just that i.e. the journalist literally or metaphorically puts down pen, switches off microphone, and whatever is said cannot be used in anyway and is purely background information designed to help the journalist better understand the context of events. But the fact is that if you ask a roomful of journalists for their definition of off-the-record you are unlikely to get much of a consensus – this should raise the red flag for PR practitioners.

So should you ever use off-the-record? The obvious answer is not if you can help it. Experienced PR professionals may be tempted to use off-the-record if they have a long standing relationship with a journalist who has always treated them fairly. Even then they should always establish before saying anything that both parties have a common understanding of what the term means – you can’t say something incendiary and then try to take it back journalists are only human!

Another media relations convention that is often confused with off-the-record is non-attributable. This is when the spokesperson is agreeing that what they have said can be reported but not with them or their organisation as the named source. In this circumstance spokesperson and journalist need to agree up front how the quote will be attributed e.g. ‘industry sources’ or as you see in celebrity reporting ‘friends close to …’

In conclusion the easiest and safest course is to stick with on-the-record i.e. being happy to see in print whatever it is that you have actually said. One final point: the actual phrase ‘mad swivel eyed loons’ is well within the 40 characters for a Tweet making such off-the-cuff remarks in our new networked world even more dangerous than ever.