There’s no such thing as “off the record” anymore.
It used to be, at least in theory, that politicians and business executives could safely assume that if the cameras weren’t rolling, or if a reporter had set down his pencil, they could speak freely and there was little risk the comments would show up on the 6 p.m. news or in the next day’s paper.
Given the number of modern, high-profile “sound-check gaffes,” most notably with President Ronald Reagan, it’s unclear whether the notion of “off the record” was ever really followed that closely.
It certainly is not the case these days.
We live in a 24-hour news cycle that is just waiting for the next story, and everything we say has the potential of being recorded and beamed to millions. Last week, President Obama fell victim to the “always on-the-record” world in what is being called open-mic night for the president at a Chicago restaurant. A live audio feed carried Obama’s comments to the White House press briefing room. He was caught challenging Republicans to repeal health-care reform, saying:
“You wanna repeal health care? Go at it. We’ll have that debate. But you’re not going to be able to do it by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we’re stupid?”
His comments came after the White House press pool had been escorted out of the briefing room. But NBC News and CBS News recorded his comments, which were made at an exclusive fundraiser. They promptly played the audio for their audiences and posted it online.
The White House press team played off the gaffe, saying that the president was not embarrassed that the remarks were made public.
In the last month, a Google news search for the terms “microphone” and “gaffe” came up with numerous high-profile blunders. Given the rich history of these missteps recorded for posterity, it might help to review some best practices with regard to speaking to the media:
1. “Off the record” is not considered off the record anymore. This even applies if the reporter agrees to the off-the-record rules. Many reporters face too much competition to not run with a scoop, regardless of how they came about it.
2. Following up on No. 1—Never say anything to a reporter that you wouldn’t want to see on the evening news.
3. Temper your comments in public places. Remember with social media and mobile phones, everyone can be a reporter, beaming “caught on tape” comments, photos, and videos from a short elevator ride to the world.
4. After you are done speaking to a reporter, make sure they are not continuing to listen, through an open mic or otherwise. One of my best scoops came when an elected official forgot to end a cell call with me, and inadvertently gave me the unfiltered inside story, as told to his staffer.
5. Finally, it’s best to keep to simple—and noncontroversial—topics during sound checks. Don’t joke about bombing Russia, as Ronald Reagan infamously did during the height of the Cold War.
Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter and editor with 20 years of experience. He heads-up the crisis communication/issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. Read his blog at or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.