There’s no such thing as ‘off the record’

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Anthony Scaramucci isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, to see something they told a journalist in print. What is concerning is that the Communications Director for The White House appears not to understand how to manage relationships with the media. His apparent lack of understanding resulted in his conversation with New Yorker journalist Ryan Lizza being published [see Anthony Scaramucci Called Me to Unload about White House Leakers, Reince Preibus, and Steve Bannon]

For the record, there is no such thing as “off the record”.  It’s something that any journalist will tell you.  If you tell them, there’s a chance they’ll publish it.  There is one golden rule for anybody talking with the press – if you don’t want it to be published or broadcast then don’t say it!  It’ that simple.  What’s more worrying is that Scaramucci’s apparent lack of understanding on media relationships work. He is, after all, only the new Communications Director for The White House.  According to Lizza, Scaramucci he didn’t even ask not to be be quoted directly.

Unnamed Sources

Had he asked Lizza not to quote him directly I’m assuming that the reporter would have obliged.  Parts of their conversation would have probably still have been published but attributed to  a “White House” source rather than to Scaramucci directly.  While Trump and his administration go to great lengths to criticize reports citing unnamed sources, this is often how stories are build around them.  Unnamed sources are not unknown sources. But, naming them publicly would, in many cases, stop journalists getting information from them in the future.

Media relationships

If you tell a journalist something ‘off the record’ because you don’t want them to publish it you’re relying on trust. It’s about your personal relationship with them rather than an established principle. If they decide at a later date that something you said is actually quite an interesting story then they can, and will, use it.  It also happens when a source is no longer of value to them.

Another misconception is that journalists have complete editorial control over the stories that are published in their byline. Once a story is written however, it’s often passed to sub-editors, section editors , Managing Editors and the Editor-in-Chief.  They ask for clarification or evidence to be added to support statements made in a story.  If the information has been provided ‘off the record’, even though a journalist may want to keep their promise, their bosses may not be quite as keen to do so.

Risky Strategy

Telling a journalist anything ‘off the record’ is ALWAYS a risky strategy, which I wouldn’t ever advocate. While it might work 99 times out of 100 when it goes wrong it tends to go SERIOUSLY wrong.  It all depends on the strength of your relationship with the journalist and whether you trust them to keep their word.