Tuesday, September 15, 2009

There is no such thing as “off the record”

President Obama has provided us with another “teachable moment.”

Just before an interview with CNBC yesterday, the President was chatting informally with the various broadcasters, technicians, PR people and other assorted handlers on set, and was asked his thoughts on Kanye West’s stunt during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards.

Said the President, “I thought that was really inappropriate… The young lady seems like a perfectly nice person, she’s getting her award… what’s HE doing up there? He’s a jackass.”

Immediately following the jackass comment, Obama jokes “where’s the pool?” referring to the pool microphones (assumedly the very microphones which recorded the clip now playing on TMZ), and then asks the assembled group to “cut the President some slack” – in other words, “this is off the record, don’t share it.”

The whole exchange is very casual, and while I'm sure he'd have preferred the recording not get out, I highly doubt the President will suffer much PR damage as a result of its release. (Frankly, I suspect a large majority of American voters agrees with him.) While not all that "presidential" sounding, the statement didn't betray any national secrets.

Some seasoned PR people have relationships developed with certain journalists over time, which give them the confidence they can provide information off-the-record and have it kept that way; they have to accept, though, that they are taking a risk every time they do it. While this example involves an off-hand remark as opposed to strategically leaked information, the lesson is the same: the only way you can guarantee you won’t be quoted saying something is not to say it.

Sometimes, though, PR professionals feel their clients would be well-served if certain information was made public, even though it might not be politically or otherwise expedient for them to release it under their own (or their client's) name. In those cases, and if they feel they have a strong enough relationship with a journalist that they can be fairly certain their anonymity will be protected, they'll elect to provide information off-the-record.

Off-the-record agreements, when they must happen, should be negotiated in advance; the PR professional should ask for the journalist’s assurance of confidentiality before providing the sensitive information. It isn’t fair to a journalist to provide tantalizing information without their having agreed to keep it anonymous, and then expect them to do so. Their job is to report on what they find; you can't give them something and then half take it back. (Also, in that case, they have no obligation whatsoever to keep it confidential; so if you want to risk going off-the-record, make sure to get the journalist's agreement first.)

Obama's comment wasn't included in the CNBC interview, but it was published on Twitter by ABC’s Terry Moran, according to a story on politico.com last night. While Moran’s tweet was taken down soon after having been posted, the fact that Moran has more than a million followers on Twitter allowed it to reach many eyes before it was taken down.

POLITICO’s story provides an explanation and apology from ABC as follows:

In the process of reporting on remarks by President Obama that were made during a CNBC interview, ABC News employees prematurely tweeted a portion of those remarks that turned out to be from an off-the-record portion of the interview. This was done before our editorial process had been completed. That was wrong. We apologize to the White House and CNBC and are taking steps to ensure that it will not happen again.

So. If you don’t want to be quoted saying something, don’t say it.

On the topic of good PR, toward the end of the recording you can hear someone in the background joking about having a fly queued up for release at a certain point in the interview (a reference to an earlier unscripted Obama moment that earned lots of mostly positive attention, which I blogged about here) – and asking whether he has his chopsticks ready.

Wax on, wax off.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I would definitely vote for Obama based on this audio clip alone. That was awesome.

  3. Early this summer, I experienced a similar incident when another organization we were working on a project with mistakenly leak the project to the press prematurely.

    They later explaining that when the cunning reporter, following a related lead, asked about they only provided an overview of the project. They added that they ended the conversation by explaining to the reporter that they'd prefer (their word) the story not be published at this time.

    The story posted on the media's website within a few hours. This individual thought that because he didn't share many or specific details of the project, and requested the story not run yet, that it wouldn't.

    Reporters ask questions for a reason, it's their job to get the story. They're not being cunning or rude, that is what they are paid to do. And they don't need a lot to piece together a story.

    The example is not the same as President Obama, but it was a real-life reminder of exactly what Melanie - and RRC journalism instructor Duncan McMonagle- have always told us: if you don't want it published, don't say it!

    I learned another lesson from this experience: not everyone understands the "rules" of reporting. It may be a good idea to sit down with employees and partners and explain exactly what off-the-record means and how to apply it.

    As an rookie in the PR profession, I'm haven't earned the right or relationships to employ the off-the-record tool. So, for me, there really is no such thing!

  4. That IS great advice, Jolene -- it's a lesson you'd far rather not learn through experience.

  5. I think Obama (or any other president, or PM), whether seemingly "off-the-record" or not, has to act as though he is on the record all the time. Pretty soon, humans will be able to get video recorders that use the eyes as lenses, embedded into their foreheads. Once this happens, people won’t have to assume, or hope that the “off-the-record” agreements are upheld. It’ll simply be assumed that everything is very much on the record. With Twitter and smart-phones, we’re pretty much already there.