There are many different ways that journalists go about source attribution. Spokespeople need to navigate the rules of the game carefully. Beginning spokespeople do well to never go “off the record.”
A treatment of the different kinds of source attribution is part or should be part of every media training. Too often new spokespeople will not understand the subtle differences between the ways in which journalists will attribute the information they share with them. The challenge to navigate these waters is compounded by the fact that the terms that are in use are often understood in different ways by different journalists and spokespeople.
To clear up the mist a little bit, let’s distinguish between the main types of source attribution first.
“On the record”
This is the easiest category. When you share something with a journalist and you are comfortable with the information being attributed to you (we will come back to the latter), you are sharing information “on the record.” In a media interview, everything you say is considered “on the record” unless the spokesperson explicitly qualifies what is said otherwise.
“Off the record” / “Background”
Here things become a little bit more tricky. For some people “off the record” means that the information can simply not be used in the article. In the Associated Press guidelines on anonymous sources for example “off the record” means “The information cannot be used for publication.” For other journalists and outlets the term means that the information can be used, but without identifying the source. In that case, a conversation needs to be held with the journalist on what the attribution will exactly consist of. Readers of the Wall Street Journal will be very familiar with information that emanates from people “close to the matter.” For information that can be used but of which the source can not be named, the term “background” is also often employed.
This term has a high cloak-and-dagger feel to it and therefore appeals to the imagination. “Deep background” simply refers to information that you share with a journalist that you simply don’t want him to use in any way whatsoever in his piece.
As I mentioned before, the use of the terms is oftentimes problematic because there is no commonly agreed upon set of definitions. Spokespeople do well to apply the following rules of thumb.
If you are a starter spokesperson, simply stay away from variations on normal attribution. Often, it is best to keep everything “on the record”.
When you are no longer a starter and want to speak “off the record” I suggest the following:
Make very clear to the journalist what it is you want to accomplish.
Go ahead and use one of the terms discussed above, but make sure you define the term in explicit terms, this can be as easy as saying something like this: “I can add more information to the topic, but I would then request that if you use it, you do this without disclosing my name or title.” If you and the journalist are in agreement, you can go ahead and share information under the terms agreed.
Timing is everything.
Don’t spill the beans and then ask afterwards to have everything classified as “off the record.” The journalist will not appreciate you doing that. Make sure to bring up the way you want the information treated before you share anything that is meant to be not “on the record.” Don’t forget that because you are not named as the source, that people close to the story can not logically deduct from what is reported that you are the probable source.
Follow-up in writing.
It is useful to follow-up with the journalist through an email in which you reiterate the agreement struck on the non-attributable part of the conversation.
Now that we have been made clear what “off the record” and other terms mean, you might ask yourself: when should I ever consider going “off the record?” This question will be discussed and answered in a future post.
Did you enjoy this piece on terms such as “off the record?”
You might also like our article on evidence-based media trainings where I talk about the need to make media trainings more firmly grounded in science.