There's now even more need to take care going off-the-record with a reporter.

Recently, a Sunday Star Times reporter started a conversation with Paul Henry, using the words, "Any chance of a catch up?" Henry made it clear that he did not want an interview, but the Star Times then printed the entire conversation, including these words: "I don't want this to turn into an interview." The paper's argument? That Henry didn't explicity use the words 'off the record'. And, of course, the paper knew that it is usually not illegal to publish off-the-record comments anyway, though they may be breaching journalism ethics.

We don't have to feel too sorry for Paul Henry... he is, after all, an experienced media personality. But there's a sobering implication for those of us who have less public profile.

The value of off-the-record and why you might want to use it

It gets very tempting to listen to the old idea that there's no such thing as off-the-record - and to decide against ever using it.

But it's not that simple. What about giving the reporter background information in safety? What happens when the reporter's grasp of the situation is so wrong that he will make you look like Genghis Khan rather than the Mary Poppins you deserve...? And the only way to correct the reporter's understanding is to tell him things you're not officially supposed to say.

How to use off-the-record effectively

So, most organisations reluctantly allow for the possibility of using the off-the-record device. And if you're going to do it, protect yourself with these rules:

Use the exact words - "off the record" - and get the reporter's verbal agreement.

Clearly flag when it starts and finishes. Say, "I'm going off the record now." and "I'm back on the record now." (I remember hearing one reporter colleague saying into her phone, "But I thought that part was on the record!")

And you may have to spell out what off-the-record means. Say: "that means you can't quote me or [your organisation] and you can't say it was someone anonymous within [your organisation]."

If you have doubts about the wisdom of going off the record, delay the conversation and discuss it internally.


Michael Brown, author of
Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority
Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority