As a PR practitioner, one of the most important decisions you take
when advising a client is how to tackle what can be given to the media
‘off the record’. It’s in both sides interest to be able to do this.
It means the journalist gets more flavour and context for their story
and the spokesperson can be more co-operative when freed from the
‘party line’.This dual interest means trust is important when knowing
where to draw the line.
You may have heard that one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, Samantha
Power, has been forced to quit over a remark made to a journalist at
the Scotsman, where she referred to Hilary Clinton as a ‘monster’.
According to the Scotsman’s political Ed, Gerri Peev the exact words
were…“She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping
to anything.” Peev added that Ms Power was “hastily trying to withdraw
her remark.” I’m amazed that the Scotsman ignored that and published.
The Scotsman have justifiably pointed out that the initial parameters
were that the conversation was on the record and may be Power was
mistakenly believing that the UK lobby followed the more deferent line
towards politicians that is adopted by the White house press corps.
But even so!Ian Stewart is The Scotsman’s ombudsman and this is his
“The rules on what is and what is not reportable in exchanges between
journalists and politicians are in my experience very clear. If a
journalist makes it known that he or she is a journalist and asks a
politician a question, then the response is on the record. If in a sit-
down interview the interviewee wishes to go off the record then that
is established at the outset so that both parties agree. It is usual
that this off the record remarks or briefing takes place at the
beginning of any interview, and it is clearly understood by both
parties exactly when off the recode starts and stops. To have any
credibility at claiming “off-the-record” status it has to be clearly
stated before any remarks are made that the interviewee is going off-
the record and this has to be agreed. I have never heard of an
interview in which the politician can edit his or her remarks after
the fact. That amounts to asking for editorial control of what is
published and I know of no journalist who would agree to that. Some
complaints said that we had betrayed journalism by publishing what we
did. On the contrary we would have betrayed journalism and our readers
had we not done.
“It was evidently Ms Power’s opinion but she realized immediately she
should not have said it. It is our job to report what Ms Powers said
as evidence of what she believed, not what she had wished to say and
would have us believe.”
Media doyen, Roy Greenslade has the following response…. “Well, I’m
afraid I’m not so certain as Peev, Gilson, Stewart and Martin about
this matter. I do lots of interviews with the most sensitive people on
earth – editors, journalists and newspaper managers – and many of them
say suddenly “and that’s off the record”. Were I to break confidence
and publish they would never speak to me again. End of source. End of
briefings. End of stories. There are, of course, occasions when
interviews begin with an agreement about the whole conversation being
off the record. But there are plenty of times when interviews go on
and off the record at will. (When I once interviewed the former Sun
editor David Yelland in his Wapping days he went on and off the record
so often that I took it as all off the record in the end).
“Although Peev probably thought that she could afford to upset Power,
as she’s a US player without any role here, but what if Obama becomes
President and Miss Peev climbs the career ladder. May be she will cost
her future employer access to the White House. Also, will key contacts
on this side of the Atlantic think twice about giving Peev any scoops?