On the Record? Off the Record?


The rules of engagement for media interviews can be confusing — on the record, off the record, background — particularly when the matter isn’t discussed explicitly.

At best this can be embarrassing At worst it can be a disaster. Often, it’s somewhere in between.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that comments made by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke at a social event over the weekend rocked the financial markets.

Indications that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is potentially more hawkish toward inflation than previously thought triggered a sudden selloff of stocks and bonds in the final hour of trading Monday.

The downturn came after Maria Bartiromo, a commentator on financial news network CNBC, said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told her over the weekend at a White House correspondents’ dinner that the media misinterpreted his comments in congressional testimony last week as too lenient toward inflation.

There followed some interesting discussion on the forums of Jim Romenesko’s fine media newsblog. One contributor wrote:

My understanding of those events from the times I’ve been there is that all conversations are assumed to be off the record (unless you’re covering the event as a pool reporter or society reporter). I guess that’s a bad assumption and I wonder if Bernanke will ever attend the dinner again.

While the Fed chairman should know better and I don’t intend to make excuses for him, did Bartriromo make it clear that she was going to report on his answers when they talked? Should we all treat the WHCA dinner as a giant stake-out opportunity next year?

Another replied:

Unless you know Bernanke had an explicit off-the-record relationship with Maria, it doesn’t seem like she was out of bounds. I will, however, wager she’s had her last meaningul cocktail party chat with Bernanke.

Now, I don’t know what the terms of the Bartiromo-Bernanke chat were and I assume I never will.  However, the lesson for all communicators from this is quite clear.

Clarify the rules of engagement in any interview, anywhere — explicitly. Simply state: “I’m considering this interview on the record” or “I’m considering this interview a private discussion that will not be quoted either by name or anonymously.”

Problem solved.

There is no room for misunderstanding here. It’s not rude. And it places the issue upfront. If the reporter objects, then you can discuss in what manner you will continue.

Importantly, don’t rely on the terms “off the record” and “background.” Define them before you proceed. Different reporters actually use different definitions for these things. Get caught up in this jargon and you could end up with egg on your face.