Is “Off the Record” Ever a Good Idea?

By Chelsie Woods

The invitation to be interviewed by the media, whether it’s with the local newspaper or an industry trade publication, is often considered an exciting opportunity. It’s a chance to tell your story and to increase your company or brand’s recognition by being interviewed as a subject matter expert.

While a majority of interviewees find it’s relatively easy to identify and clearly convey specific talking points, such as how drone technology is reshaping the security industry or how biometrics is becoming a more affordable and reliable solution, there is still one question that many people stumble upon.  That is when a reporter asks “Off the record, can you tell me ….”

While it may be tempting to answer this question openly, especially with a reporter that you feel you can trust or with whom you have developed a rapport, answering this question can pose some real problems.

For example, when asked to provide the names of some of your clients, it is never a good idea to share this information with a reporter without getting the client’s approval first. Instead, it’s okay to tell the reporter that you can’t name a specific client who is using your product, but you could share non-descriptive information about the client, such as saying it’s one of the country’s top 10 retail companies or a large pharmaceutical firm. The last thing you want to do is to jeopardize a business relationship with a customer.

It’s also important to be cautious when a reporter asks for your honest and personal opinion about a controversial situation or competitor, even if the reporter says he is just curious about your thoughts and will not use that information in an article.

Always remember the information you share with a reporter could find its way into a story, either in an article currently being worked on or one scheduled for the future.

In this instance, it is appropriate to let the reporter know what you can say on the record. You can preface your response with a phrase such as, “What I can tell you is  …” or you can tell the reporter that you feel more comfortable staying on the record and providing usable information for the story.

It can be a delicate balancing act to provide a reporter with useful information and to be viewed as a valuable resource without sharing confidential information or other details that are not for public consumption. The majority of reporters today will respect that position, especially if you are upfront about the information you can and cannot share. A good rule to follow is when in doubt, keep it on the record.

— Chelsie Woods is one of two founding owners of Eclipse Media Group. She has nearly two decades of public relations and writing experience in the technology and security industries and worked as a reporter for three newspapers in Maine.