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. I’ll touch wood when I say, I’ve HARDLY ever had a problem on this score but there have been mistakes when I was younger that I have learned from. I’ll tell you more another time! You may have seen 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 official view…..“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. I“t was evidently Ms Power’s opinion but she realised 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, which I agree with…. “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?