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When media training newsmakers, one question that seems to consistently come up when preparing for a media interview is: what is the difference between speaking to a reporter on-the-record, off-the-record, and on background? While there are different types of media interviews where you may be under the impression some parts of your interview are for public consumption and others are not, in nearly all cases, you should assume that everything you say to a journalist may become public record and that you could be identified as the source in the story.
However, knowing the difference between the various types of media interviews, industry terms and having a basic understanding of how reporters identify sources in stories is valuable information to have, so long as you use extreme caution and have a firm understanding of the process.
Understanding the difference between on the record, on background and off the record will only better your understanding of what tools may be available to you as well as the guidelines that most of reporters use to source newsmakers in their stories.
Below is a brief overview of the different types of media interviews and source attributions media use to help ensure you ace your next interview and begin building and strengthening relationships with the media, journalists, and news outlets.
You should assume that on the record is the default scenario for any interaction with the press, whether in passing, at an event, or during a formal interview. In this scenario, all comments that you make to the reporter can be, and may be, directly attributed to you. This means you can be directly quoted and be fully identified by your name, title, and organization in the story. As a best practice, you should always try to keep as much of your interview as possible on the record, so that your exact words are used and there is no misunderstanding about what was on or off the record. This will also help ensure that the reporter, who is conducting the interview, remains transparent and credible in his or her story.
When talking to a reporter on background, you should be very clear and extremely cautious. On background, which is sometimes referred to as “not for attribution,” means that the information that you tell the reporter can be used, but the journalist cannot directly quote you by name. Some examples of the how reporters attribute information from sources speaking on background include: sources close the situation, a company official, government official, industry executive, etc.
When going on background, you must first tell the reporter that you are doing so prior to making any statements. The reporter must also agree to speak to you on background. This is a transactional agreement that should be discussed with journalists before making comments or called out at the start of the interview, so that they are aware that there may be topics that come up during your interview that you can only speak about on background.
In order to move from on background to back on the record with a reporter, the newsmaker must verbally alert the reporter that he or she is doing so. Sources must be sure that the journalist is clear when newsmakers are moving between on the record and on background.
However, before requesting to speak to a reporter on background, newsmakers should read the Associated Press (AP) guidelines for using anonymous sources and use them as a gauge for when to make an on-background request of a reporter. AP states material from anonymous sources may be used only if:
- The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
- The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
- The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.
Off the Record
The last level of attribution is off the record. Speaking off the record is different from both being interviewed on the record or on background. Off the record means the information that you share with the reporter cannot used, nor it be cited by you as a source in the story.
Off the record should only be used with the utmost caution. Newsmakers may want to consider working with a seasoned communications professional to help guide them through this delicate process prior to their interview. This level of attribution should only be used if it is absolutely critical to the reporter’s full understanding of the story and when the newsmaker is unable to give the reporter those same facts or comments on the record. If you are unable to speak on the record about certain issues though, off the record can be a very valuable way to share vital information and other trusted sources and leads with the reporter.
Sources should also be aware that some reporters may not agree to talk with them off the record. Understandably, some journalists feel that if they cannot use the information shared with them, why waste the time? Although, most seasoned journalists will likely see this as a chance to harvest some additional insights that could potentially help them with their understanding of an issue or situation.
However, just like when you are speaking to a reporter on background, it is always helpful to work with a communications or media relations professional before your interview to help ensure you are fully prepared and do not making any assumptions during your interview.
Ellen Mellody is a senior vice president at Powerplant Global Strategies and seasoned communications strategist, writer and cannabis legalization activist with more than 20 years of strategic communications, media training, public affairs, government, political, issue management, crisis and advocacy experience.