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PR Lessons: Nothing is ever ‘off the record’

September 15, 2009

President Obama said what we were all thinking about Kanye in a CNBC interview – that he’s a jacka** for the stunt he pulled on poor Taylor Swift at the VMAs. ABC’s Terry Moran overheard it, then tweeted it.ย  President has a right to an opinion, yes- but the bad thing is that he represents not just himself, but a brand (the United States, if you will.) He represents a large mass of people. So, the PR pro in me was screaming – even if LAF was laughing, agreeing and talking in third person.

This is the part that got me, which is from an ABC spokesperson:

“In the process of reporting on remarks by President Obama that were made during a CNBC interview, ABC News employees prematurely tweeted a portion of those remarks that turned out to be from an off-the-record portion of the interview. This was done before our editorial process had been completed. That was wrong. We apologize to the White House and CNBC and are taking steps to ensure that it will not happen again.”

The White House had no immediate comment.

PR Lessons here:

1. Nothing is ever off the record. Think about what you say. Train your clients, spokesperson and yourself. Everything you say can be printed.
2. No comment is never the way to go about it, White House. Admit it, address it and move on.
3. If you are the spokesperson for a brand, guess what? Your opinion can reflect that of others. Now, granted, most of us probably think that about Kanye…..
4. Social media can spread things quickly and prematurely, and sometimes might not be accurate.

So what do you think? Any lessons to add? What would you do as the PR person? Would you have gone the same route?

55 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2009 6:07 am

    The worst part about this is not that the president was caught calling Kayne that, but that Kanye will just be thrilled to hear the president is talking about him! Good for his ego and whatnot.

    • September 15, 2009 6:12 am

      That’s exactly what one of my favorite DJs in Dallas said yesterday morning (Kidd Kraddick) – something along the lines of that it pleases him that every radio DJ is talking about his lame self. The thing we have to think about from a PR standpoint, though – did they really address the situation correctly? Does off the record work differently in journalism v. PR world?

      • September 15, 2009 4:08 pm

        My thoughts on off the record are, if you don’t want others to hear about it, don’t say it. You can’t trust that using “off the record” will keep your statement from being aired publically. I believe it’s a personal choice and comes down to morals and ethics.

        I agree that the White House’s neglect to respond and address this may prove to be a bad decision on their part. As with any business the goverment included they need to comment before it becomes a huge scandal and is completely blown out of proportion. The President is not “your typical” average daily person he is treated as a very viable source of information and a strong opinion leader obviously – he is the President of the USA. As US citizens who pay his salary, we obviously hold him more accountable and responsible for his actions and the reputation he has determines the opinions many people will form about him, his offices and those who serve him.

        Does your relationship really matter? I have heard that in many cases the information is “accidentally leaked out.” I wonder what others thoughts are concerning this issue. Should we consider relationship? Journalists and PR PROS don’t have a specific rule that states don’t do it- at least not that I know of. It’s left to the journalist and or PR Pro to determine ethically.


  2. September 15, 2009 6:20 am

    I think that ABC so far has handled the situation well. If I’m understanding correctly, it was their mistake to Tweet about an interview that was considered “off-the-record.” I understand that in this day and age, it’s hard to be completely off-the-record, but all professional journalists should still strive to uphold agreements that they make with sources. Perhaps I don’t fully understand, but I know it was drilled into our heads in J-school to be ethical and to be very careful with relationships with anonymous sources/off-the-record stuff.

    The information did get out, and ABC apologized for allowing it to get out, which seems to be the best thing for them to do. The lack of comment from the White House, however, is a big risk. Obama needs to respond to this! He may not have wanted his comment to leak out, but it did and now he must face that.

    I really don’t know how I would comment if I were on the PR staff at the White House, but I know that there needs to be a response and FAST!

    • September 15, 2009 6:45 am

      I think that might be the difference, but I could be wrong. When it comes to protecting your sources (ie. if they could be in danger, if its something related to a political scandal, if they could lose their job) then you keep their name off the record- but not what they say. If you’re in public office, that notion seems to go out the window. Off-the-record always seems so sketchy to me.

      Great point on crisis communications for the White House, R. Crisis Comm 101 – Always respond and address it, even if it puts you in a bad light. People speculate when they don’t get answers.

      • September 15, 2009 7:15 am

        That’s true, once you take public office it’s a whole new ball game. He really should know that he’s always “on” and that nothing can ever really be truly off-the-record. There are no hard and fast rules from what I gather, but it all depends upon the relationship you have with a source. But of course, the president isn’t just any source…

        • September 15, 2009 8:16 am

          I like your point about how the President isn’t just any source – and how it really depends on your relationship with the source. I think it can get very complicated, so a rule of “Nothing is ever off the record” could really be beneficial in the long run.

  3. September 15, 2009 6:36 am

    As I said on Facebook when I posted a link to the Politico article, the PR professional side of me — which tends to govern much of how I view things — was cringing … but the pop-culture observer part of me was highly entertained. The fact that even the President of the United States pays attention to — and comments on — pop culture says something about how much a part of our day-to-day lives it is. And I won’t get into the debate on whether that’s good or bad. I’m just making an observation.

    And back to the PR side of things …

    This reminds me of a story I covered as a reporter for a local daily newspaper — my first “real” job out of college — many moons ago. I was sent to cover a public meeting with a gubernatorial candidate, which was sponsored by the local College Democrats. During the meeting, which was meant to be a campaign stop leading up to the primary election, the candidate instead declared that she’d be withdrawing from the race. And, apparently, she leaned over to the *obvious* reporter in the room (a radio gal loaded down with equipment) and declared that to be “embargoed until tomorrow.” I didn’t hear what she said, and she didn’t say anything to me. When I got back to the newsroom and declared that the candidate was dropping out of the race, the editors were salivating, because we were going to get to break the story on AP. But first they wanted to check with the radio station to see what the candidate had said to the reporter, which is when we all learned of the “embargo.” That was when I learned something that has ALWAYS stuck with me and has served me especially well in my PR career: If you say something in front of an “audience” (i.e. not in a one-on-one, private conversation/interview), it’s going to be fair game. I’m sure that candidate was livid that we broke the story of her withdrawal from the gubernatorial race — on the AP wire, no less — but the reality is that she said something in a meeting that anyone could have attended. Social media was relatively small-time back in those days, but still … anyone at that meeting could’ve broken that story. And today, that would be true 100x over.

    However, as someone with both a journalism *and* PR background, I have to dispute the notion of there being “no such thing as off the record.” If you’re engaged in a private, one-on-one conversation/interview with a reporter and you declare something to be “off the record,” you can reasonably expect that an ethical reporter will respect that declaration, especially if that reporter values you as a source and plans to continue working with you in the future.

    • September 15, 2009 6:43 am

      I think that’s a big difference in the way PR and news reporting is taught – first in college, than in the professional world. I wonder if it’s because PR pros have been burned numerous times. Numerous colleagues have told me horror stories of how they said “this is off the record” to a reporter and they see themselves quoted the next day. It happens frequently. However, when I took journalism classes, they also said that off the record often depends on the person/situation – ie. Watergate – but that a good rule of thumb when saying things is to believe that nothing is off the record.

      Kind of a catch 22, isn’t it?

  4. September 15, 2009 7:59 am

    Lauren, what you say is, most certainly, true. In this day and age, nothing is off the record (I don’t care what your agreement says … if you say something, it’s out there, and someone’s gonna report on it).

    That said, I disagree with the notion that The President’s people should be all over this, responding and issuing statements, etc. Why? If they do that and *make* it an issue, then it becomes one; it takes on a life of its own, one that it just doesn’t need to have.

    I’m sure that the folks on FOX & Friends will have their fun with this today, but I think the President (and his staff) would be well-served to just press on.

    • September 15, 2009 8:01 am

      One of the first things I learned in crisis communications – if everyone could possibly be talking about it – and it’s the President, of course they will – then he should address it. It’s not like people DON’T agree with him. But just like the other incident, he should say something. Let’s just hope he doesn’t invite Kanye for a beer at the White House – he doesn’t need any more of an ego boost.

      • September 15, 2009 8:31 am

        See, that’s kind of my point. It’s a non-issue. Yeah, he should know that the mic is always on, but still, if the White House MAKES it a crisis, then it becomes one. My approach would be to address it with humor and absolutely not engage people who’re trying to turn it into a bigger deal than it is. My $0.02. ๐Ÿ™‚

        • September 15, 2009 8:40 am

          I might address it with humor as well – but at least address it. People speculate when you say no comment. Isn’t it better to be prepared, in case it had turned on him, rather than not? Maybe I’m just looking at this weird. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. September 15, 2009 8:12 am

    I agree with Lindsay. The PR side of me cringed, but I did also find it hilarious.

    However, it makes me wonder… how could the President of the United States not know that nothing is off the record. Seriously?? That’s been drilled into my head since my first high school reporting class.

    Sometimes, you have to live and learn. Obama definitely won’t be saying things “off the record” from this point on. I’m just glad it was something of such little significance (in the grand scheme of things).

    • September 15, 2009 8:14 am

      It was drilled into my head too, but it just makes me wonder why ABC approached it like they did. Why even bring up the fact it was off the record? If he overheard it from another interview, how did they know? I’m glad they addressed it.

      You’re right – I think it was rather insignificant, and I thought it was hilarious as well. ๐Ÿ™‚ From a PR standpoint, not so much.

      • September 15, 2009 8:18 am

        Yeah, ABC definitely went about it in a weird way. I thought maybe they told everyone about it being off the record to make it more infamous and thus an even bigger story.

    • September 15, 2009 8:44 am

      We all say things that we wish we might’ve worded differently and Obama is no different. After all, we were all thinking it he just said it. But you would think that that a public figure (especially one as media-savvy as Obama) would recognize that nothing is “off-the-record” particularly when his comment was so entertaining. I think ABC was right in issuing an apology and the White House should do the same. I’m with Lauren, I just hope he doesn’t invite Kanye to the White House for a beer… then the White House would have to issue and apology to the entire country for giving Kanye an even bigger ego.

      • September 15, 2009 8:49 am

        This is a great comment, Kelli. Obama is media savvy, and yes, we all make mistakes. His comment was entertaining, and I think the reporter thought so and wanted to share. But I also think many need to re-evaluate how they view on the record, and I think many journalists might have a harder time getting anon sources. (which, honestly, isn’t cool.)

  6. September 15, 2009 8:24 am


    Today, people expect authenticity, transparency and trust. I agree that there is not “off the record,” ever. I think people trust the President more because he shows that he’s a real person. He has an opinion on life, entertainment and the news.

    IMO, the President has a right to his opinion, a right to voice his opinion especially about entertainment, and he was only stating the obvious. He was transparent and there was no spin about it. ABC made it news by issuing a statement, which now the President or his people need to respond. This could go on and on and on.

    Does the public know the difference between journalism and PR? I seriously doubt it. So when professionals weigh in on different sides of the issue, I think the ultimate test should be “what does the reader think?”

    Personally, I think there is news that is more important these days.

    • September 15, 2009 8:29 am

      I agree that there is much more important news – but somehow, in the media, anything the President does is news. It was news when they got a new dog, even. That’s what a reader is interested in. I had many of my friends ask me what off the record meant – and thinking it was shady in general. So shouldn’t our role be to educate what that means?

      He does have a right to an opinion – but not in a public office, unfortunately. It’s something that CEOs, board members, etc have to remember – what you do, or say, can represent an organization, or in POTUS case, his country. Every time I talk, because I am quoted as a spokesperson for my organization, I have to remember that it could come back. (even if what I said had nothing to do with them).

      I guess it’s just the society we live in, huh?

  7. felicitousfi permalink
    September 15, 2009 8:40 am

    The title of this post deeply unsettles me, because of what it signifies.

    The reporter erred here, plain and simple. He violated a code of ethics so sacred, that even non-journalists know and believe in it. Well, at least they used to.

    Barack Obama should have been able to trust a professional journalist like Terry Moran, and the fact that he made such an off-the-cuff remark is testament to the rapport this president has had with the media (the same rapport John McCain boasted before the election turned ugly). But instead, the commander-in-chief was proverbially slapped in the face by a man who’s been in the news business for years and who *clearly* knew better. Now, thanks to Moran, we can expect fewer candid remarks from the leader of the free world. You can be sure that his handlers will have him under lock-and-key — which perhaps may be desirable to you PR types, but is a tragedy for those of us on the news side who crave conversations with frank politicians.

    I can’t stress enough that, of all the people in the world, Moran chose to disregard the golden rule of journalism *with the President of the United States!* Arguably the most powerful man in the world. Really?! No one could have made a bigger mistake, with a bigger person.

    As if that weren’t problematic enough, Obama’s position of prominence shines the most glaring light possible on this breach of ethics. Everyone in the public will know that “off the record” no longer means that at all, when it absolutely, always should! This blunder will have far-reaching consequences for interviews at every level of the news industry.

    I’ve worked PR, but I’m a news reporter at heart, and so it is from that place that I say: This is undeniably and unequivocally the fault of the reporter, and *not* the interviewee. Moran has ruined things for good reporters who know how to behave professionally and with integrity.

    • September 15, 2009 8:47 am

      I have a journalism degree, did an internship in a newsroom – so I’m def still a non-journo type. I didn’t realize that there was a sacred code – so I’m not sure if many know about it.

      What do you believe the title is implying? The title is something that was drilled into my head from the get-go, and has been reiterated through personal experiences that my fellow PR colleagues have had.

      I’ve seen so many cases where ‘off the record’ isn’t really. It might work sometimes, but with the way society is evolving, I really think we as PR professionals must be on our toes.

      I wish that people valued it, but experience has taught me to be cautious.

  8. Neil Stelkic permalink
    September 15, 2009 8:54 am

    Certainly I agree with President Obama. However, the merit of his comments do not matter to me much in this situation. Rather, what concerns me is that he should be more aware of his surroundings. He must know that if someone can get a story on him, for what is publicly an inappropriate comment, they probably will. Don’t you think the President should know better than to rely on what is supposedly โ€œoff the recordโ€ as a means of censoring his public message? I hope it was a comment made in passing that was picked up on and not as out in the open as it sounds.

    • September 15, 2009 8:59 am

      That’s what I wonder – was it just said in passing, and now they are saying it’s OTR? He is a public figure, and I do think he is allowed his opinion. But on the other hand, sometimes in a room full of reporters, you just shouldn’t say it.

      I think if the White House had addressed it, I wouldn’t have so many questions. I think there are many other issues we should be focusing on, and that is what the President has been working on. Who cares what he thinks about Kanye? I’m starting to think it wouldn’t have been as much of an issue if social media wasn’t around.

  9. September 15, 2009 9:10 am

    Great post, but I disagree with your lesson #2. Why should the White House bother to comment on this, let alone apologize? Like you said, everyone agrees with the assessment. Voicing his opinion on matters large and small is sort of his job. Was the problem that the POTUS used a naughty word? If you’re worried about a president misrepresenting the brand of the U.S., well, I think there are larger issues on the world stage than the doings of one inebriated music performer.

    I think of it this way: if I were waiting for an elevator with one of my clients yesterday, and he said, “So, that Kanye. What do ya think?” and I said, “Off the record?” and he said, “Yeah, totally,” then I would have no problem saying, “Sounds like a jackass.” Would I have been misrepresenting my company or my personal brand? No, I would have been scoring a high-five from someone who feels the same way. No one looked at that situation and thought, “Now here is a man who will never, in any capacity, deserve to be called a jackass.”

    • September 15, 2009 9:15 am

      If ABC had never said anything or issued a statement, I would have been ok with no comment. But the way the stories are presented, it says the ABC statement, then the White House had no immediate comment. That’s a red flag for me.

      I think you and me, v. what the President says everyday, is different. If I said what I thought about Kanye, I don’t think many would care, and it wouldn’t reflect on my org.

      It wasn’t that it was a bad word, I just don’t like cussing when it’s in writing. Just a general rule of thumb in LAF land. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Colin permalink
        September 15, 2009 9:28 am

        I have to side with TJ here. I see what you mean about the red flag LAF, but that’s a product of poor…well not poor, but maybe over sensationalized journalism? (does that make sense?!?!) It makes it sound like the media has the say on when an organization should or shouldn’t comment on something and I think that is giving them too much power and credit.

        • September 15, 2009 9:30 am

          Media does have a lot of power – they get to report on everyday happenings. I def agree with TJ, but this situation blew up. You never know when situations will have that effect – I mean, really? He was being a jerk. I agree with Obama. Just admit it and move on. No one is going to give you grief for saying so.

  10. Colin permalink
    September 15, 2009 9:22 am

    I like the way ABC has responded although I don’t think it was necessary. Does off-the-record exist? That’s certainly debatable, but I always learned that as a PR pro most journalists will use their relationship with you and the weight of what is being said to determine what is or isn’t off-the-record, therefore you are never to expect anything to be off-the-record. Was it wise for Obama to say what he did, whether he thought off-the-record existed or not? Probably not, but I don’ think his remark requires any type of crisis response. I imagine most will take it was a grain of salt and move on. If Obama wants to address it with a brief apology great, if not, i don’t see the issue. Are a lot of people talking about it? Sure, but hardly a crisis in my opinion.

    Awesome topic though, LAF! Goes to show the power of SM…for better or for worse.

    On a more personal note, so that I don’t get confused with being an Obama apologist, I am a conservative and not an Obama supporter, but I find last nights comments about Kanye pretty humorous and something that needed to be said. I understand the professionalism that comes with holding public office and his choice of words may not have been the best, but sometimes I think we all need a reminder to lighten up from time to time.


    • September 15, 2009 9:25 am

      Colin – No worries! I’m with you on leaning more conservative. I was raised by a Cuban, and my mom is a very big Republican – they even have a dog named Dubya! I am with you though on his comment – needed to be said, and was humorous, but I also evaluated from a PR standpoint.

      I think crisis is such a harsh word when it comes to what it actually is – crisis comm, that is. It can be used from anything to your chairman broke his foot, to something more extreme. Was it a crisis? No. Was a response needed? Yes, once ABC issued something.

      • Colin permalink
        September 15, 2009 9:37 am

        Yeah, I understand what you mean. I guess I’m just an odd duck (especially since I work in PR) when it comes to my opinions of some media and how much power they either think they have or we as the public let them think they have. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all journalists are power-hungry and it’s not always even their fault when it seems that way, but to me, saying a response given by one organization requires a response from another is feeding the ego of journalists too much. Especially when a growing number of the public is loosing faith in journalistic accuracy. (via twitter post from @prsarahevans)

        • September 15, 2009 9:39 am

          It’s definitely not being an odd duck. ๐Ÿ™‚ Just, for me, the way the media played it, it does require a response of some kind. I think a lot of people lose faith in journalism because things like this are happening. It’s always changing, but casting like on OTR isn’t really cool.

          I really like your points – I hope you know that! It’s very refreshing to have so much conversation with different viewpoints.

  11. Glorimar Perez permalink
    September 15, 2009 9:46 am

    I don’t necessarily agree that there is no such thing as “off the record,” but I think it comes with some serious caveats. It’s important for PR pros to recognize that “off the record” is not something you can toss out all the time or casually and expect it to work. I do believe that you can use it with a journalist that you have built a good relationship with and trust. After all, if we’ve done our job correctly, we have shown that journalist that they can trust that the information we provide them is accurate. It’s a two-way street.

    What we can’t do, and I think this is where a lot of the concerns come in, is consider “off the record” to be some sort of airtight seal. Once you say or write something, it’s out there. Even if the journalist sticks to their word and doesn’t publish that information there’s always a chance that they might make an off-hand comment to someone else about it, leave a paper lying out by mistake, etc. I think of it somewhat the same way that I think of posting photos on Facebook. You can have the privacy settings turned on to restrict views, but any time you post something there’s always a chance someone that you don’t want to see it will stumble upon it some other way.

  12. September 15, 2009 11:02 am

    Great post, Lauren, and great comments. On a side note, what would you do if you were Terry Moran? He hasn’t tweeted since this all happened. Perhaps he’s been told not to, and maybe that’s the best thing to do anyway …

    • September 15, 2009 12:46 pm

      Personally, I would have kept the tweet up – maybe sent out an apology tweet on my own. The thing is, the internet time stamp is forever. Deleting it doesn’t make it go away. He should own up to what he did – it really isn’t THAT big of a deal.

      • September 15, 2009 1:41 pm

        I agree. It makes him look more guilty by deleting it. Own up to it, and move on!

        • September 15, 2009 1:42 pm

          I think it might be hard to own up to it if you’re the one outing the President. Maybe they just want to make sure the relationship isn’t ruined? Frankly, I don’t think it’s such a big deal that he said it as I keep thinking on it.

          • September 15, 2009 1:49 pm

            Yea, I agree on both of those points. It’ll be interesting to see what his first post-Obama tweet is! Business (news) as usual I supposed.

  13. September 15, 2009 11:12 am

    Anyone that thinks that ANYTHING is “off the record” these days needs to have their head examined.

    Reality TV has taught me that.

  14. September 15, 2009 12:57 pm

    Interesting convo here. The trouble with “off the record” is that it isn’t a rule or a code or a secret password that automatically severs the connection between a reporter’s ears and his pen (or keyboard). “Off the record” is an agreement.

    When a interviewee says “off the record,” she only says whatever she says next because she trusts the reporters to not print it. The reporter, of course, can do what ever he wants with it. However, like any written contract, there are penalties for not performing. If the reporter prints something even after it was “off the record,” the source can simply refuse to speak to that reporter again. Plain and simple. 99.9% of the time, that risk is enough to keep a smart reporter from printing an off-the-record statement, because a reporter only gets his job done if he has sources who are willing to speak to him.

    A smart interviewee, however, makes sure that no one else who isn’t a party to the “off the record” agreement is within earshot. In the president’s case, that’s difficult because he’s always being followed by an entourage of reporters, staffers, Secret Service agents, and so forth.

    This situation is odd in that one reporter overheard a statement meant only for a different reporter. Frankly, this was a dumb move on the ABC reporter’s part. ABC’s apology is clearly meant for President Obama and no one else, in feeble hopes that the next time its reporter has a question or wants an interview the president doesn’t turn a cold shoulder.

    I also think it’s interesting that the journalists commenting here have a different understanding of “off the record” than do the PR people. This makes sense, though, given what I’ve said above. If you’re a PR person and you say something out loud and someone hears it, then that person can truthfully report that you said it. There is no physical way to prevent him or her from doing so. Hence the notion that “nothing is off the record.” PR people remember when they get burned. If you’re a reporter and you print something that was not meant to be printed, then there is nothing you can do to impel that source to ever talk to you again, hence the belief in the “sacred code” as a cardinal rule for maintaining trust with sources. Journalists remember when they get “scooped.”

    As for Obama further commenting on his comment, if I were his PR people, I’d say this: If no one asks about it, don’t bring it up. There’s no need to make something out of nothing. If someone does ask about it, come up with some funny or fluffy one liner to play it off (something like “Maybe ‘jackass’ was a bit strong, but that night Kanye set an example that I certainly wouldn’t want Sasha and Malia to follow), and then move on to the next question.

    • September 15, 2009 1:41 pm

      Joe – I think you’re right on target with the fact of why journalists and PR people have a different viewpoint of OTR. It’s something I’ve been wondering about, but never had it explained to where it actually made sense. Yours did. Like I said — insightful comment, and one I think we can all read and understand. Great points all around.

  15. September 15, 2009 1:50 pm

    This may have already been brought up, but does anyone know if they Terry Moran knew Obama was off the record? If he was just within an ear shot, its quite possible that he didn’t hear the other reporter or Obama say off the record. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention and just heard “Kanye’s a jack***.” Those words would definitely make my ears perk up, especiall if said in Obama’s distinct voice.

    Not really relating to the conversation, but just food for thought.

    • September 15, 2009 2:17 pm

      On the contrary, I think it’s very relevant. We don’t know the situation, and we aren’t sure the circumstances. We can only guess from the statements released.

  16. September 15, 2009 4:05 pm

    Lauren, you are probably too young to remember some of the things that presidents have said things previously that would probably be considered far more serious than a smack-down of Kanye (in a national security sense) during off-the-record comments. For example, President Ronald Reagan’s statement before a 1984 weekly radio address (apparently to test the microphone) that he had outlawed Russia and would begin bombing in five minutes ('s_%22We_begin_bombing_in_five_minutes%22_joke). The comment was indeed recorded and reported. Thanks to our digital age (ta-da!) you can download free audio copies of it all over the Internet if you are curious.

    My point is this: Human behavior, however we categorize it, is hardly new. Neither is the amazing propensity of elected officials and others in the public eye to say things “off the record” when clearly, nothing is EVER off the record. (Trust me. I spent 20 years in journalism and several of those years in DC covering Congress and the White House before going into PR). All that’s new here is that somebody tweeted president Obama’s comment in real time (the Reagan comments were leaked later through more traditional means — phone calls).

    It doesn’t at all change the debate, which in many ways, is as old as the concept of a free press. What’s on the record and off? What I tell clients today is a riff on the old saw “buyer beware.” Any source who’s in front of a journalist (or today, a blogger) has to consider BEFORE SAYING ANYTHING, just where their comments might wind up, regardless of whether they believe a promise that something is “off the record.”

    • September 16, 2009 10:42 am

      Hey Paul – Wow. 20 years on the journo scene in DC? Sounds like a blast. I was too young to remember that, but I really think you bring up a great point. The buyer beware mentality is something that we should all have – think that anything we say could be on a billboard in Times Square.

      • September 16, 2009 1:03 pm

        Hi Lauren, thank you for the post and for taking time to reply to everyone, including me. Of my 20 years in journalism, only about half were in DC — but that was enough! I was there for Reagan, Bush 1 and Clinton 1 (if you are a DC insider which term for which two-term president matters, I guess). It just amazes me that even though I left DC in 1993, these issues are still “fresh” thanks to Kanye and the president.

        • September 16, 2009 1:05 pm

          I can imagine…. that’s a lot of years in DC. Somehow, though, I bet it was a thrill. I think the term ‘history repeats itself’ is relevant in this situation.

          And no problem. If a reader contributes, shouldn’t I contribute too? ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Courtney permalink
    September 16, 2009 9:53 am

    I completely agree that nothing is ever “off the record”. If Obama was being interviewed, or within earshot of reporters, he should be mindful of that and know that he has to choose his words very carefully. Now if he were simply shooting the breeze with a friend (for example), and Terry Moran happened to overhear it and post it to Twitter, I’d say that’s a different story. President Obama is certainly entitled to express his opinion like any of us. However, on the flip side, because he is the President, everything he says & does is under heavy scrutiny at all times. He’s pretty much always “on the record.” I like the way ABC handled it – promptly and professionally. No comment from the White House is lame. It just fuels speculation.

    • September 16, 2009 10:43 am

      I like that you brought up the different settings – interview v. shooting the breeze with a friend. That makes all the difference in the world. Very insightful, and something I didn’t think about!

  18. James Anderson permalink
    September 17, 2009 6:14 am

    Well, I can say that as a journalist, I have no specific problem with keeping comments made off-the-record as exactly that and would always respect the wish of the contact.
    But, only with very few sources do I always consider the conversation to be always off-the-record unless otherwise stated. Otherwise, I expect to be explicitly told at a briefing whether it is off-the-record. Otherwise I assume it’s on-the-record.
    I think that’s a fair approach. What does any one else think?
    I recently met someone for an informal briefing, but it was never once stated prior to or immediately afterwards that it was off-the-record. I quoted the person in a subsequent article, and all hell broke loose. But, it was never stated to be the briefing was off-the-record, and so I felt justified in writing up the comments.
    My advice to PR people: always make it explicity clear whether something is being said on or off-the-record.

    • September 17, 2009 7:38 am

      James – Even if we make it clear that we want it off the record, that really isn’t a guarantee that it will. I’ve heard horror stories of PR professionals being burned, and I think that is where the differing opinion lies.

      I think that there is always going to be a gray area – and it comes down to if you trust the other person or not, or how well you know them.

  19. September 17, 2009 4:36 pm

    Great post and really good comments as always. One perspective that I would like to offer up on the OTR debate is the time, place, and person angle. Like many of you, the first thing I learned in media training was that nothing is ever off the record, and yet, like many of you, I have strayed from that golden rule on occasion. But I think the difference is that I am not the most powerful person in the world who was asked about (sadly) one of the most talked about topics of the moment.

    Considering the time and place and the President’s answer, I think it would have taken the most restrained journalist not to share. I can’t imagine that Moran didn’t know the backlash he would face. After all, this is not his first rodeo. Certainly he will not be getting any one on one interviews with the president any time soon. My guess would be that he quickly calculated the cost and decided that it was worth it. He certainly stole the news cycle.

    So while you or I may be able to go OTR on some day to day stories, when the Watergates, Kenyes, or the Lewinsky’s of the world come into question it appears to me that most journalists would be willing to risk the unspoken code to get the story.


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