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Off the record, no comment. Part I

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Off the record, no comment

A flak calls (this should be the name of a movie). He wants to clarify to his junior staff what the difference is between “off the record” and “on background”.

At the simplest level, they mean the same.

Beyond that, it’s not straightforward and a quick straw poll shows it means different things to different journalists, so perhaps it’s best to be clear before you start.

Ideally, you want to get to a position where the hack and the flak know and trust each other to the extent that both sides understand what the deal is automatically.

There are definitions offered on the internet, but they aren’t that clear either.

Here’s what I think they mean.

Off-the-record is a device for getting stuff into the paper, on background is a device for keeping them out.

So, if we agree to chat off the record, you are steering me around a story I am plainly going to write. That bit is true, you tell me, that other bit not so much, but basically I’m good to go. I might write phrases like “sources in the City say” – it is this dance that lets the informed reader know that this story has been confirmed, just not on the record.

On background you might be chatting around a much wider topic. You are making me smarter for a piece you want to be nowhere near. Or on something that is particularly sensitive to a client.

So, the CEO hasn’t left his job because he was having an affair with the HR director (it’s always the HR director). He is very ill and may not have long to live.

That’s private stuff, and on background you are steering me away from the salacious but inaccurate rumour and towards the harsh truth, which you may leave to my conscience as to whether I report or not (I probably don’t, in those circumstances).

David Mellor doesn’t want to be seen denying the tabloid invention that he liked to make love while wearing full Chelsea kit, since it’s all rather embarrassingly tawdry.

His flak might say, on background, look, he doesn’t think that stuff is funny and will sue if you repeat it as if it were true. (To be clear, it isn’t).

Both devices can be misused to mislead reporters of course, and I think as a trade we should probably insist on staying on the record more than we do.

And a tip of the hat to the PR folk who think they can get away with saying “off the record, no comment”.

Keep doing that, it’s funny.

Press release of the day

Employees lose three working weeks a year looking for IT support, says this from AppLearn, based on YouGov data.

That’s 30 minutes a day mucking about with tech that doesn’t work. Tell me about it. Perhaps this is all going to get better.

Andrew Avanessian at AppLearn says: “These figures show the shocking hidden costs associated with spending more of the working day online. The way employees and organisations have adapted and accelerated their digital transformation journeys over the last year has been incredible.”

This release is actually from yesterday, but I like it.


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Tomorrow's Business

Off the record, no comment. Part II


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