Remember: it’s always a negotiation.


Off the record, on the record, on background. The terms are commonplace for PR professionals but are often used incorrectly. And that can be very dangerous.

I’ve dealt with various record requests as a PR rep, as an editor and as a reporter myself. These terms can be confusing. Use the below guide to ensure you understand – but perhaps more importantly, include this as part of your media training for clients and principals. A confident executive saying “well, this is off the record, BUT” could well wind up as front-page news tomorrow.

Basic definitions

On the record is the default status for talking to a reporter in a professional capacity. It means anything you say in an interview can be quoted and reported on, with your name attached. You should assume that anything you say to a reporter is on the record unless they have stated otherwise.

That part is important, so let me repeat it, this time in bold: you should assume that anything you say to a reporter is on the record unless they have stated otherwise.

Off the record is, of course, the flip side of that. Nothing in that conversation should be included in coverage, either as a direct quote, a summary or a reference. Nothing.

 

 

Finally, the last status is on background, which is the most complicated terminology. On background often means that the information may be used either via quote or a summary, but without a specific name attached. This is often used to not put the focus on a person, such as attributing a quote to “a company spokesperson” as opposed to “Jane Doe, head of communications.”

A less common term you may hear is “deep background.” The AP defines this as, “The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.” This is often used when a journalist needs to speak to a subject matter expert to understand a topic enough to write about it with authority, but the identity of that expert doesn’t necessarily need to be in the story.

When in doubt about the definitions of any of these terms, ask up front.

A journalist’s obligation

In a perfect world, a journalist will always make the record status of a conversation clear. I like to tell people upfront, “I’ll be using this in an article, so everything we discuss is on the record. Is that OK?” It’s also fine to make it clear that nothing you say is on the record: “Hey, this is just a getting-to-know you chat, so let’s stay off the record unless we both decide something comes up that’s worth reporting on. Is that OK?”

But not all reporters do this. So again, assume that anything you say to a reporter is on the record unless otherwise negotiated.

Because going off the record or on background is always a negotiation. And it must happen before you say whatever you don’t want to be reported.

Reporters have an ethical obligation to preserve a source’s trust by respecting agreements about going off the record or on background. Breaking that rule is considered a deep faux pas. But that does not mean you can simply preface a statement by saying, “this is off the record” and expect that to be respected. Both sides must say yes.

There have been several high-profile situations, including one that involved Elon Musk, where sources sent emails to reporters flagging information within as “off the record.” But because the reporter in question never agreed to be off the record, they published the contents of those emails. They were within their ethical rights to do so. You also generally can’t say something, then backtrack with “that was off the record.”

It’s rarely to your advantage to go off the record with a reporter. Even if they can’t report what you told them off the record, they can investigate it and try to find an on-the-record source. But if you do want to give it a try, approach it like this:

“I’d like to go off the record with my response because…Will you accept those terms until we both agree to go on the record again?”

Get a clear yes or no. And if it’s a no, then move on. Change topics.

The trouble with background

Again, background is the squishy middle ground between on and off the record. Some  journalists have grown sick of it.

In 2021, The Verge updated its public ethics policy to change its stance around “on background” reporting. As the outlet’s editor-in-chief, Nilay Patel, wrote at the time:

There are many reasons a reporter might agree to learning information on background, but importantly, being on background is supposed to be an agreement.

But the trend with big tech companies now is to increasingly treat background as a default or even a condition of reporting. That means reporters are now routinely asked to report things without being able to attribute them appropriately, and readers aren’t being presented with clear sources of information.

This all certainly feeds into the overall distrust of the media, which has dire consequences in our current information landscape, but in practice, it is also hilariously stupid.

It’s worth reading the full story for some deeply cringey examples of PR professionals demanding to be on background in ridiculous ways. Don’t be one of them.

The Verge clarified that it will only accept on background requests “at our discretion and only for specific reasons that we can articulate to readers.”

While it may be awkward for PR professionals, it’s good for journalism. The public’s ability to evaluate the credibility of a source by knowing who they are is vital. If you aren’t comfortable with putting a name to your spokesperson (whoever they may be), you need to reevaluate your strategy.

Remember: reporters are not your friend. They are professionals there to get a story. Most aren’t out to burn you either, but protect yourself and your organization by deeply understanding and aggressively negotiating these terms.

Get more expert insight into smartly working with the press during PR Daily’s Media Relations Conference, June 6 in Washington, D.C.

Allison Carter is editor-in-chief of PR Daily. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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