In Hollywood movies and even local TV drama you’ll often hear journalists asking questions “off the record”. It’s presented as an opportunity to squeal on a bad boss or blow the whistle on a corrupt organisation. In real life it’s more commonly used to get some background information or perhaps to give an interviewee the confidence to say a little more than he or she ordinarily would.
I think it’s a mistake to speak off the record. Although most journalists will keep their word, some might be over ruled by their producer or editor and in extreme cases where the courts become involved journalists may have to decide if saving your bacon is worth a prison sentence! (Also remember they are human beings and some human beings love to gossip.)
A safe rule of thumb is if you are uncomfortable with the idea of seeing the information in print, don’t share it. Easy!
But if you do choose to go ahead with an off record interview I suggest the following:
1. Only talk to journalists you have a good and ongoing relationship with. They are less likely to burn you than someone you’ve just met.
2. Check first with your communications team. There maybe more to the story you don’t know about or a communications plan you are about to sabotage.
3. Weigh up the pros and cons of speaking out. Once you’ve disclosed information you can’t take it back.
Even if you aren’t specifically named, your identity maybe obvious to those in the know.