There used to be a simple list of accepted ground rules for media interviews with reporters. They don’t exist anymore with the advent of viral media. Ground rules have gone the way of VCR tapes, yet that doesn’t change the reasons why you need to be more vigilant than ever about what you say in interviews.
This has always been a fuzzy rule. Does off-the-record mean the reporter won’t use you as a source, but is free to find someone else who will speak on the record about the same topic? Or, does it mean he can’t use the information at all?
Forget about it. Off-the-record just does not exist.
It’s gotten more cut throat every day to be the first with a “scoop” and no reporter will honor off-the-record when a simple internet search will turn up many experts who can address the subject. Also, with the 24/7 news cycle, stories are reported and updated around the clock. A reporter may simply forget he promised you confidentiality as he updates his story and pushes it out online. Copy editors can no longer catch mistakes because chances are they aren’t seeing each new revision.
One old rule still applies: Never say anything to a reporter unless you are prepared to see it in print. Everything is on the record.
On Background/Not for Attribution
This one is even fuzzier. What you say can be used, but not attributed to you by name. A source close to the company, a spokesperson, or an informed source have been accepted designations. After a brouhaha about anonymous sources several years ago, the New York Times changed its Confidential News Source Policy, which includes this statement, “We will not use anonymous sourcing when sources we can name are readily available.”
But even if you’re granted anonymity, you may find that how you’re described is a dead giveaway to who you are. Just type in a few keywords on Google and you may pop up. “…the first women to become Secretary of State.” Guess who?
No other ground rule has been so ground to dust as the embargo. Remember the “olden” days when you could place an embargo on a press release and reporters would actually honor it? Not much to worry about when newspapers were only printing one daily edition and the broadcast networks had their shows wrapped up by late afternoon. But now, like vultures, reporters and editors pounce on every piece of news like it was raw meat. They won’t hold the news because they know their competition will run with the story if they don’t.
All this may cause you and PR departments a lot of anguish. But look at this way. The 24/7 news cycle has forced us to be sharper and more adept at zeroing in on our key messages. As we wrote in an earlier post, when a reporter is calling on deadline, she may not have more than a few minutes to talk. Be sure you get media/message training so that your key messages just roll off your tongue. Practice them until you’re completely comfortable.
Go on Record
Don’t ask for anonymity or talk off the record. Ultimately you want to see what you say in writing. After all the whole purpose of PR is to get more exposure for you and your company, isn’t it? So in today’s world of viral media you have to be willing to hear or see whatever you say in print or settle for “the spokesperson had no comment.”