A cardinal rule in media interviews is never go off the record (and conversely, watch out for what you do say on it!). It can be dangerous for you and the reporter if you do. And you don’t have to look far in today’s news to see where setting such boundaries with journalists is a good idea. Because when they aren’t set, Generals can be forced to tender their resignations and the life of that one news story just turned into a cat with eight lives more to go.
Going off the record serves no real purpose — even though most journalists will respect it (my favorite time this happened, the reporter simply put down her pen — she wasn’t using a tape recorder — and the client told their little aside. And it didn’t really add to the telling of the main story). But some journalists won’t respect it, simply because they get lazy or careless about note taking, or forget what you said wasn’t for publication. In the rare case, an off-the-record comment can contain information that blatantly contradicts a case that you might be trying to make. Granted, this happens more in hard news stories, but even in the business world, a lot of inside information or a slip of the tongue can move things in another direction, the direction you didn’t want go.
If clients have clear messages or talking points beforehand, and even do a mock interview just to get comfortable with the process, you won’t have this problem most likely. If you are unclear of what you need to say in a particular discussion during an interview or in answering a question that seems potentially loaded, it’s okay to say, “This isn’t for attribution, but let me give some background here.” The difference between saying that and going off the record is significant. Your PR person will and can often speak for you in this framework, usually before or after the media is done talking to you and the media source needs some follow-up information or clarification.
Most clients however do not want their PR peeps speaking for them on the record. Still, others will designate them to be the spokesperson for the company, or a division, or in the case of serious family or personal matter, they will strongly need someone to handle the talking. Make sure you establish this responsibility early in your working relationship.
Looking at the public relations issues related to General McChrystal’s interview in Rolling Stone magazine makes for a pretty great case study in how not to conduct an interview — and to know when not to go on the record, let alone off it. It’s simply amazing Michael Hastings, the reporter, had as much access as he did (the military aid/flack who set this up has also filed his quitin’ papers, it turns out). As noted in the Huffington Post online today, McChrystal’s sentiments about President Obama and the perceived failure of the president’s Afghanistan war strategy were a serious negative the military media handlers should have protected against — providing they acknowledge that they are serving their Commander-in-Chief, the president elect. The Huffington Post reports:
Michael Hastings, who wrote the profile of General Stanley McChrystal for Rolling Stone, said today that he wasn’t quite sure why the general gave him the near-total access that led to the publication of explosive comments that brought about McChrystal’s resignation.
Speaking on the phone from Afghanistan to ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Hastings said he think the decision speaks to McChrsytal’s often reckless behavior:
“It was a sort of natural kind of recklessness that General McChrystal had, which has been with him through his entire career, as I understand it. And inviting me in, was a obviously a risk, as it always is when you invite a journalist in.”
Now the military has lost a dedicated life-long general and the White House has lost another round in defense of the escalation of the conflict in, what is it they call this forlorn place with trillions of dollars in minerals and poppies, the graveyard of nations?
Reckless or candid, the McChystal comments/debacle underscore how wrong things can quickly go. The PR lessons are many and at some point, we’ll return to them again when the friendly fire has cleared and it’s safe to armchair analyze the fallout.
For more resources, see the Library topic Public and Media Relations.