‘Off the record’ vs. ‘on background’: What every PR pro should know

Read this story before you give a reporter what you presume to be confidential information.

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In the era of quick-hit reporting and little or no source-building, there are times when it makes sense to provide the media more than simply a short official statement.

In most crisis communication scenarios, a statement is the go-to, tried and true media response. Longer interviews or long responses get shortened or paraphrased—and often misrepresented. There are ways to get an issue across outside of an official statement, but they, too, have pitfalls.

Among those ways is to speak to a reporter off the record.

Going off the record with the media means providing them information that they cannot use. Presumably, they can use the information to help formulate their story or to ask further questions. It should never come out that the information came from you.

It’s a dangerous proposition, and, more often than not, the off-the-record information makes its way into the story, and it becomes clear who provided it. Having a solid rapport with a reporter is the only way this tactic works; otherwise, there is a good chance you will get burned, particularly if the information is juicy.

As a reporter I refused to listen to off-the-record information from sources, because I was afraid that it would end up in my stories and, often times, I suspected it was a trap to get me in trouble.

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