Off the record. Just don't.


'Off-the'record' is one of most misunderstood concepts in Public Relations. Too many reporters have succeeded in making their interviewees believe that whatever information they share will be treated without any consequence. Let's remember that once you have said something, you cannot take it back. It is like squeezing toothpaste out of the tube and then trying to put it all back without any loss or damage to either the toothpaste or the tube. You will not succeed. If you do not want information to be shared outside of your immediate circle, office or company, then don't share it - especially not with a journalist. 

It is key that those responsible for Media Relations do not take the concept of 'off the record' lightly; not only for the sake of their organisation, but for their stakeholders. During the war in Kosovo, as Director of Communications for one of the largest international aid agencies' Middle East and Eastern European regional offices, I quickly became aware that our efforts to relay the suffering of those affected by the war would be hampered if our press officers did not understand this simple, but essential concept. Broadcast outlets from around the world were in the midst of all humanitarian efforts. Things moved quickly, TV crews also. Our press officers, many of which locals with little experience, were inundated with questions from media. They did an excellent job answering questions and getting the stories out there that helped tell of the atrocities committed and suffering endured.

At the same time, TV crews would show up and ask for a quick coffee and 'off-the'record' chat'. Some of these chats could have hampered the humanitarian relief effort. Equipping our newly appointed press officers with the skills and words to politely decline off-the-record conversations whilst still being professional and friendly was not a mere 'nice'to'have', but made a real difference to the work on the ground - a difference to human lives.

The same is the case today, in any business setting. It is easy to share an 'off-the-cuff' remark or to let off some steam about your company with a friend or possibly a journalist. But how often do we stop and think of the consequences? The wrong words in the wrong hands can bring enormous damage to a company's reputation and consequently impact its ability to trade and, of course, ultimately, provide employment. 

Off-the-record is always 'on-the record' - just don't go there, think before you share.