"Don't quote me on that."
That phrase will make any public relations professional cringe in agony. It means a spokesman has just shared information or an opinion with a reporter he should not have shared. It also means the PR advisor has failed in their duty to properly prepare the spokesman for an interview by setting and clearly explaining the ground rules.
There’s a saying that sums up everything you need to know about an interview: The microphone is always on. If you conduct an interview with the understanding that everything you say may be quoted and attributed to you, you should be able to avoid pitfalls.
However, there are cases where it may be necessary to provide a reporter with information or analysis without attribution. It’s absolutely vital that the ground rules for this kind of interview be set in advance and clearly understood by all parties involved.
Confusion about these ground rules — whether an interview is on the record, off the record or on background — has contributed to countless awkward situations for political figures and business leaders. But the consequences can go far beyond awkwardness. Failure to understand the fundamentals of the media and what it means to be on or off the record lead to situations where you damage your reputation and put your organization at legal or financial risk.
Here’s a guide to the three primary arrangements that govern how a reporter may use the information given in an interview.
On The Record
The reporter may quote you and include your name and title.
Many outlets will only conduct interviews completely on the record, and virtually no outlet will allow you to change a statement after the fact. It’s crucial, therefore, to prepare your comments before any interview to ensure your quotes are memorable and on-message, and that they won’t be misconstrued.
The reporter may use direct quotations, but will attribute them to “a source familiar with the company” or another agreed-upon designation. This attribution is an important part of the ground rules for an on-background interview. It should be clear enough to establish credibility but vague enough that it doesn’t reveal your identity.
On-background interviews are usually used in situations where your message contains sensitive details about your own organization (or a competitor’s organization), industry or area of expertise that needs to be disseminated without compromising your identity.
Off the Record
The reporter cannot quote you or use any of the information you provide without independently verifying it.
Off-the-record interviews help reporters advance particularly sensitive stories. By granting their source complete anonymity, journalists can get the real, undiluted story and have a better idea of where their investigation should lead.
How do you set up off-the-record or on-background interviews?
Any time you speak with a reporter, you’re speaking on the record unless the reporter has agreed to a different arrangement. If a reporter talks to you on the street, you’re on the record. If the reporter emails you, your response is on the record. If a reporter calls you out of the blue, that call is on the record.
Arranging an off-the-record or on-background interview is risky. If the initial communication with a reporter is on the record, how do you request to go off the record without appearing cagey? This is where the “relations” of media relations cannot be undervalued. You should only ask for an off-the-record or on-background interview when you or your PR counsel have a strong relationship with the individual reporter. The reporter needs to be confident that your insight will help move his story along, and you need to trust that the reporter won’t misuse that information or publish your name.
Never change the ground rules during an interview
Trying to switch ground rules during an interview is a bad idea. It’s confusing, both to the reporter and for you, to jump between what is public information and what is confidential. “That statement was off the record, but you can quote me on this.” It’s a bit unfair to expect a reporter to keep track of which sentences were on or off the record.
And if you ever realize you’ve said something you shouldn’t have said, never say, “Don’t quote me on that.” It only signals to the reporter that you’ve just said something newsworthy, and makes it more likely that comment will end up as the headline of the story.