Hearing from people who ask for interviews off the record has become a regular part of business journalism. In my experience, that’s most frequently done by in-house corporate PR people when faced with inquiries that are sticky.
But beyond that, there are many others who want to discuss things off the record, generally in the middle of a conversation as I’ve found. And in all cases, you have to approach things carefully, if at all.
These requests fall into two categories. The in-house PR people have a couple of reasons to take this route, but all are to control the eventual results of your coverage. This happens in three ways. First, they PR person wants to understand as much of your angle as possible before providing someone to interview.
Part of that is reasonable. If the topic of the story is IT, for example, the head of accounting wouldn’t be appropriate. They might also ask about where the story would appear—again, reasonable—and when. The latter can become a pain in the rear when they want to see the piece but don’t want to do the research, but you can always tell them if you know or say that you have no idea if you don’t.
Two other parts aren’t. The person wants to figure out what you’re writing and, if it might be controversial, how to work around it. There are types of information PR people request that I don’t provide: names of other sources, copies of reports I might have, question lists, and the slant of the article (I’ll provide a general topic or area I’m looking at, which sometimes has to be specific because of the story’s nature).
The last part is when a PR person wants to go on background to plant ideas he or she hopes will appear in the article without any connection to the company appearing. It’s a technique often used to attempt undercutting negative information to soften a story or to hand you something that you now cannot use (unless you can find it from another source).
Because of this, I generally find it best to avoid off-the-record conversation with PR people. Sometimes you can’t avoid it—and, to be fair, the PR person might be concerned about reputation or legal issues and might feel the need to generally talk things out before providing quotes.
Then there are times you can feel it coming. I recently wrote about a company that was claiming that a much smaller business had a competing trademark. Someone from the company wanted to talk on background. I know a reasonable amount about trademark and why companies are often obligated to protect their market. When I mentioned that, they still wanted to talk on background—meaning that they wanted to slant coverage without being quoted as doing so. I settled for a statement and then juxtaposed that opposite information that contradicted it.
Again, sometimes you should, sometimes you shouldn’t, and it can be hard to tell in advance.
Then there are individuals who say they want to go off the record during an interview. First, the phrase can mean different things to different people. Can you quote them on that part without attribution? Use the information in the article without providing the source? Not even use it? You need to clarify exactly what they mean, and you’ll likely find that they didn’t know there were multiple meanings. All the better to square that away.
Now you have to understand why. A person may be trying to avoid getting into trouble while still making a point or even blowing a whistle. Or there may be a personal axe to grind. You’ll have to sort through and try to understand the reasoning before agreeing to off the record.
No matter the situation, whether an individual or PR representative, you have to walk carefully when off-the-record comes into question.