This is Off the Record, Right?

If you’re a character in the “Harry Potter” series, one of the most dreaded phrases spoken is “Voldemort.” If you’re the parent of a teen, you may be tempted to give a kidney if it would mean your child never uttered, “Whatever” again.

I can tell you as a journalist, one of the phrases that strikes frustration into the hearts of reporters everywhere is “off the record.” It makes our jobs more difficult and brings up ethical dilemmas, including deciphering what we can and cannot use for our stories.

Most of us were taught in journalism school that “off the record” is a term that means none of the material can be published (with attribution or anonymously) or shared with another source.

Be warned, however, that as a PR professional or business source speaking to reporters – depending on the circumstances and the particular reporter you’re working with – simply saying “this is off the record” doesn’t necessarily mean that your words will be saved from print or broadcast. A recent article quotes Johna Burke, senior vice president at BurellesLuce, on the “mythical creature” that is “off the record.”

The very idea of confidentiality has changed over the past few years, Burke said. Things employees used to talk to their friends and families about now gets shared on social media sites. Voicemails and emails make their way to the press.

“Everything is public record,” she said.

Christine Perkett of Perkett PR agrees, “From executive internal memos to ‘private’ DMs on Twitter, to emails, anything that can be shared – and if it benefits someone – probably will be,” she says. …

Be transparent with your message and communicate it well, Burke advised. She said, “I’d hate to think we need to be guarded” with information, though she did say it’s a good policy to keep a tight circle around communications you don’t want going out into the public sphere.

Perkett puts it this way: “A good mind frame is simply, zip the lip.”

(Gil) Rudawsky (senior director of communications at Ground Floor Media) doesn’t expressly prohibit going off the record, but he says to be very careful about it.

“The only way I’d recommend sharing off-the-record information is with reporters who you have a good preexisting relationship with, but even then it is with reservations,” he says. “Otherwise, assume that everything you say will show up in their stories.”

However, as I said earlier, depending on the circumstances and the reporter involved, the phrase still holds water. When I was a beat reporter at a small newspaper, my concern was developing trust with – not burning – my very valuable sources. So, even though hearing the phrase pained me, I would respect the source’s wishes and seek out someone else who could give me the information I needed for the story. Many reporters – but not all – follow a similar code. 

When you know you’re going to be interviewed, at least have a conversation with the reporter prior to the interview regarding information that should stay off the record. And, if there’s something you really don’t want to have published, you’re probably better off just keeping it to yourself.

Of course, as a journalist at heart, that last sentence cuts me pretty deep.