Sources Say: Going “Off the Record” with Reporters

Posted on December 12, 2016

By Ben DeClue, City of Lebanon, MO, LinkedIn and Twitter

One of the most misunderstood tools in public communications today is source anonimity. Too often, sources decline to be identified, no matter how mundane, trivial, or freely available the information being revealed.  Some journalists aid and abet this bad behavior, allowing the words “off the record” or “for background only” to magically transform even the lowliest public servant into a “source familiar with,” “administration official,” or “person close to the situation” to convey non-controversial and publicly available information.  Worse still, some people think that off the record means their comments are privileged like attorney-client or doctor-patient and won’t appear in the news at all, serving only as a talking point or guide-post for a reporter.

Obviously the above paragraph is my soapbox, but the reality is that the glamorized nature of becoming a source has obscured legitimate uses of these private conversations.  When used properly, the conversations are valuable for relationship building and information sharing with your local media (as opposed to smoking Chesterfield cigarettes in a dimly lit garage while exchanging cryptic clues to some befuddled scribe.

To help get the low-down on how the relationship between journalist and public servant should work, I introduce you to S1 and S2. Both are former journalists who left the dimly lit, cigar smoke filled world of pulp and ink for the glitz, glamour, and bright lights of local government service.

Off the Record with S1 and S2

L.A. Confidential

Me: When should you go “off the record?” How do you properly go off the record?  Is a difference between off the record and going on background?

S1: I view “off the record” as situation when I want to help a reporter but I am hamstrung because of my position. The more I think about it, the more rare I think it will be for me. There just ain’t a lot of skeletons in closets around here! What’s more likely is that I’ll use it as a “teaser” to keep a reporter interested while a final release is being prepared, like a budget proposal or a new bike-share program. Just keep ’em dangling on the line for a few hours or days.

In most cases, I would only go “off the record” if there was a realistic possibility that I’d be able to go back on the record. Like “I’m giving you a sneak peak at this bit of info, but I’ll have more to say once it’s approved next month.”

Me: Should you ever go off the record for routine public information though?  It sounds like you’re using it to help a reporter begin formulating a story, which does make sense, but a lot of people seem obsessed with becoming the “source close to” or unattributed statement of a basic factual nature these days…

S1: I can’t get behind that in most cases. When I was a journalist covering dozens of city councils in [redacted], we were strongly discouraged from using anonymous sources in most cases. Someone had to be pilfering millions, or hiding a literal body, to warrant anonymous sources. A council president who expensed a few extra miles doesn’t warrant breathless comments from an anonymous source.  I’m more apt to give a journalist advance notice on a piece of news, which is important in today’s media cycle with hourly web deadlines and click-bait headlines.

Me: So for you its a tool to build a relationship and offer guidance to your local press out with information they’ll be receiving formally, as opposed to going “deep throat” about a dispute between a department head and a manager over a backhoe purchase.

S1: Yep. But never say never! 🙂

Me: S2, what about you?  What do you have to share?

S1: I don’t think you should ever go off the record. There is no certainty that the reporter will honor it when push comes to shove. I think it is abused on the source side as people think they can drop anonymous sources and reporters will print them, but there is a lot of leg work that needs to go into verifying what has been said (whether on the record or not).

There is a huge difference between off the record and background. [emphasis mine] This past week I worked with a reporter as a background source. Long story short: [a big project] is coming to [redacted]. However, it’s too early to make an official announcements since there is work to be done. The first step was the Fire District approving a contract with [big company] to build a service shed on their property. I knew that reporters didn’t cover their meetings so I called a reporter I had a working relationship with and let him know what was going on. I told him I’d prefer our conversation to be background only – knowing that I might still be quoted – and I never made any demands. My goal was to get the news to the community as [big company] was not going to be making an announcement until it was ready to sign up new subscribers and the City was not going to announce anything since we were not involved in the early set-up. The key, I think, was that I asked but did not demand anything. A reporter can always say no and then you need to devise a back up plan. Of course, a reporter could also say yes to get you to talk, but not honor it.

There you have it.  Clearly a role for off the record conversations exists in the local government communications toolkit; the key is knowing how and when to use the tools withouth abusing the public’s trust.  As with most situations, the application of common sense and keeping transparency and open communications in the forefront of your actions serves as a pretty good guide.  Getting a chuckle out of the knowledge of seeing your words, but not your name, might be intriguing the first time it happens, but repeated secrecy, especially when anonymity is not called for, is damaging to the public trust. When in doubt, remain above board and get in touch with someone you trust for advice.  If you don’t believe me, believe my two anonymous sources!


“Remember, dear readers, you heard it here first, off the record, on the Q.T. and very Hush-Hush.”
-Sid Hudgens, LA Confidential

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