As a higher education media relations consultant, I spend a healthy percentage of my time facilitating interviews between college faculty, administrators and journalists. Every once in a while, I am present during the interviews I set up, but mostly I hear secondhand from people how the interview went after the fact. Often these recap conversations include casual mentions of going “off the record” during a routine media interview. Interestingly, in almost every instance faculty and administrators share with me, the off-the-record portion of the conversation is initiated by the person being interviewed rather than the journalist. It is this point that gives me pause.
It’s not that I am afraid of any major scandals being revealed -- that is rarely even a possibility in the kinds of interviews I am pitching and setting up with subject-area faculty experts. The vast majority of the interviews I arrange are opportunities to share good news stories about innovations making a positive difference at a particular institution, or to share expertise that provides helpful context for an issue currently in the news. Nor am I concerned about journalists seizing the opportunity to delve into unrelated or sensitive topics; in fact, I don’t think that has ever happened.
Instead, I’m curious about what kinds of conversations most often prompted the perceived need for an off-the-record conversation. The way many faculty explain it to me, and how I have witnessed it during interviews, is that it’s often invoked to excuse a sarcastic comment or joke that could be perceived as too casual or unprofessional if quoted. It’s unpolished speak, usually mundane. It’s also used as an off-the-cuff assumption of confidentiality about what is about to be said, whether or not it reveals any further details of the story being written (usually it doesn’t). Neither of these instances are really what going “off the record” is intended for.
One of the most common ways I have seen it in practice is in informational meetings, like desk-side visits that provide an opportunity for sources to introduce themselves to reporters they don’t know well and to share thoughts on major trends and issues for potential future coverage as topics arise. Note that sometimes these conversations are also on the record, so it’s important to clarify in advance. Another common use is to tip journalists off about a particular story (often with an element of scandal), while remaining anonymous to the public. In fact, this may be what most of us think of first.
We can thank Hollywood for that, as well as for our assumptions about how frequently going off the record is used. However, it’s important to remember that films that portray the media industry usually focus on the most interesting and sensational stories -- major whistle-blower exposés or investigative journalism projects, where interview subjects may have knowledge about political scandals or major crimes or are sharing information that could put them in danger but is critical to an important story being told.
While it can happen, it’s rare that faculty, students or administrators would be working with an investigative journalist; much more common are straightforward interviews based on academic expertise or experiences. And therefore it’s rare that an off-the-record conversation would be necessary.
In fact, we advise everyone we work with to assume all interviews and conversations with journalists are on the record, from the first “hello” until the phone has been hung up or both parties have walked away. This is not because we presume any ill intentions of the reporter. Instead, it’s because it’s both usually an unnecessary step and a poorly understood practice, particularly by people who are not reporters; even journalists can interpret it differently. So, not using it at all leaves no room for confusion and eliminates postinterview anxiety. This is important because off-the-record requests don’t work retroactively and, in fact, must be agreed upon by both parties before any conversation takes place.
In cases where a story may be more sensitive, avoiding off-the-record conversations can become even more important. Consider the fact that any additional information that is shared can be confirmed by others, without revealing the original source, and reported on that way. Sometimes that is the intention, but often it’s not. And it can have unintended negative consequences, as explained by reporter Chris Taylor in Mashable’s off-the-record cheat sheet: “But in my experience, the greatest use of ‘off the record’ is a negative one -- that is, the words uttered in that time-out invariably help explain where I might be going wrong on a story, or why there's something I'm misunderstanding. The story is invariably stronger for it by the time the recorder turns back on.”
I want to be clear that none of this means it’s necessary -- or advisable -- to be elusive or obstructionist when working with journalists on any type of story. And it definitely doesn’t mean that reporters are not trustworthy. It means that preparation is key and should include a review of content as well as an understanding how media interviews work. If an off-the-record conversation makes sense for a particular story, terms should be agreed to in writing. Nothing should be assumed. If anything about the process or intent is unclear, don’t be afraid to lean on communications professionals for advice. In the end, taking the time to prepare for an interview, refine key points and anticipate questions in advance will almost always eliminate the desire to go off the record, whatever that really means.