Updated: Nov 20
Going on or off the record with a journalist: what's the deal? Dive into our media training guide tailored for tech startups where we break it all down.
If you’re a fan of Succession, you’re probably familiar with an opening scene in the second season, featuring Cousin Greg speaking with a journalist who is writing a biography on Greg’s media mogul uncle, Logan Roy.
“I don't wanna make my uncle mad, because he can be, uh…” Greg stammers. “Well, he can be scary, vindictive, paranoid…”
“Scary, vindictive…” she echoes, jotting down each word with intent.
“Wait, I'm sorry. Uh... No, no, no,” Greg fumbles. “None of this... I'm not actually saying that. This isn't... You can't say I said anything.”
That momentary lapse landed Greg in a boiling pot later in the episode. If you’re a tech CEO that has had dealings with the press, this might hit close to home.
The terms 'on the record', 'off the record', and 'on background' have been around for as long as journalism, but many sources (and even journalists) are still scratching their heads over them. That said, drawing from chats with journalists and my own reporting experience, we can broadly define these terms:
On the record = everything you say can be published.
Off the record = nothing you say can be published.
On background = what you say can be published, but it can’t be attributed to you.
When you're speaking with a journalist, understanding the difference between 'on the record', 'off the record', and 'on background' is crucial. They're not legally-binding rules, but these guidelines can incentivize sources to share valuable info without putting themselves in the limelight.
What being 'on the record' really means
Let's etch lesson one in stone from Cousin Greg’s scenario: always operate under the assumption that you are on the record.
Some less-than-ethical journalists may use this rule to their advantage, but the ball's in your court to know what "on the record" really means.
Going "on the record" means every “um”, “ah”, and accidental revelation can be public. I've seen many a tech CEO, in the midst of an interview, drop bombshells only to later ask, “Can we scratch that?” In the media world, there’s no takesies backsies. Once you’ve said it on the record, you can't simply Ctrl+Z your words. The lesson? Take a breath. Think. Then speak.
If you’ve read our post about embargoes, you're acquainted with the 'gentlemen's agreements' in journalism. Going 'on' or 'off' the record works in a similar fashion, but these concepts do flirt with a few legal nuances.
In certain U.S. states and in Canada, journalists don’t legally need your green light to record a conversation. I can share from my journalistic tenure in Canada that recording all calls with sources was par for the course. And sure, on occasion, it rattled a few cages, like when one source mid-call gave me a “Wait… you’re recording this?!”, voiced his not-so-gentle objections, and promptly hung up.
Some journalists, treading carefully, may inform you if a conversation is being recorded, but they simply don’t have to.
PR tip: going 'off the record' for your tech startup could work
Wondering why on earth you'd chat with a journalist and go off the record? There's some solid reasoning behind it.
First, you might have intel that's still under wraps but set for future release. Dishing this out lets you give the journalist some juicy context and might even land them that coveted first exclusive when the news breaks. It's a win-win: they get the inside track, and you secure more coverage for your company down the road.
Here's a quick PR tip: you can also go 'off the record' to strategically craft a narrative for your tech startup without blatantly showing your cards. For instance, when I was working as a tech journalist (before moving to PR), I got a tip about a software company overlooking a glaring security flaw in their latest update. The source subtly redirected focus towards their cybersecurity partner, without openly slamming them.
Lastly, some info is just too personal. Like when I reported on a CEO stepping down, and off the record, he shared it was due to a pretty serious illness. Out of respect, that detail never made the final cut.
When you should go 'on background'
Many mix up 'off the record' with 'on background', but there's a clear distinction. With "on background", a journalist can publish your insights, but can't disclose you as the source.
Remember “Deep Throat”, the mysterious informant from the Nixon Watergate saga in the 70s? He's the poster child for "on background". He provided key details, all while keeping his identity concealed for over 30 years.
So, why choose "on background"? It's an ideal option for those who wish to disseminate valuable intel without direct attribution. There's a myriad of reasons to go this route: legal implications, job security, reputation concerns, to name a few.
Whether you’re a whistleblower, or just a tech CEO who wants to share some juicy gossip about a competitor, going on background offers a method to share discreetly.
However, a word of caution: choose your journalist wisely. Most professional journalists will respect the agreement, but a few might share your identity with their higher-ups or colleagues. That’s why it’s so important to vet the journalist and understand their reporting style before you sit down with them.
PR pro tip: know if you’re on or off the record at the outset
The differences between going on the record, off the record, or on background boil down to what you and the journalist mutually understand them to mean. So, before diving into any conversation, ensure both of you are clear on the definitions of these terms and when to use (or not use) them.
Here’s what it can look like when sources don’t do that: mid-interview with a CFO, he casually drops “We’re about to acquire our biggest competitor, but that’s off the record.” Not anymore it ain’t!
Going off the record isn’t an afterthought, it’s a prearranged agreement that requires both parties’ consent. Always ask to go off the record or on background BEFORE dropping any bombshells.
Safeguard your tech startup's image with a trusted PR agency
These terms can get confusing, and it's tempting to think journalists are just trying to pull a fast one. But in reality, it's on you to understand how interviews work, and getting a solid PR agency on your side is a great place to start.
Master these concepts, and you'll not only navigate interviews like a pro but also solidify those vital media relationships. If you're a tech startup hungry for the spotlight, make your move with Mind Meld PR today.