In the world of media relations one of the biggest challenges that practitioners face is effectively communicating with the media, either acting as a spokesperson or through prepping a client. It might be common knowledge for professionals in the industry, but there is a popular misconception that when speaking to a journalist you can say something “off the record.” By saying this, it’s believed that what you said confidentially won’t make it into the piece a journalist is writing, but in reality “off the record” doesn’t exist.

Cases of off the record gone awry

There are numerous cases of going off the record actually being on the record, including Barbara Morgan, communications director for the Anthony Weiner campaign, informally speaking to a Talking Points Memo reporter about a former intern and using a number of unprintable words to describe her. This conversation made its way into an article that went viral on the internet and tarnished Barbara Morgan’s career.

Another case of going off the record resulting poorly is when The Catfish Institute collaborated with the show “60 Minutes” to do a story on catfish farming and how the industry prepares catfish to eat. A major issue at the time involved an “Asian country dumping catfish into the United States and calling it U.S. farm-raised,” and so all of the talent for the show were given one rule: don’t talk about the catfish dumping.

Three days were spent on set, everything went spectacularly. The chairman of the board and the president walked the producer and cameramen to the door and said off the record, “We’re so glad you didn’t ask us about the Asians dumping catfish into the U.S.” All of the preparation and time invested in the 60 Minutes segment was wasted, as the story focused on the Asian country dumping catfish into the United States.

If you don’t want to be attributed, don’t say anything

In the world of media relations, it’s vital to have a professional and friendly relationship with reporters regarding topics of interest. However, going off the record can mean a variety of different things to different reporters. Some of them will take what you say in strict confidence; others may attribute you as a confidential source, while others might republish direct quotes in their entirety for their article.

While there are ethical codes in place for both the journalism and public relations industries, all practitioners and reporters also have their own personal ethical codes that they uphold in the professional world. The following golden rule should be followed when speaking to journalists: if you don’t want to be attributed or see an “off the record” quote in print or online, then you shouldn’t say anything at all.

A journalist’s number one obligation is to the public, serving as a watchdog in the fourth estate. If what you’re saying off the record might be of public interest, a reporter will include it in their article. The biggest takeaway is to be careful about what you’re saying and don’t think that going off the record will provide any semblance of protection or immunity. It won’t.