Dear Dr Deadline,
I’ve just got into a spot of bother with a good contact of mine, who had told me something “off the record”. I’ve always taken this to mean that I could use what they told me as long as I didn’t directly quote them. My contact is now furious because he says he meant I wasn’t to use any of the information he gave me. He now refuses to take any of my calls. What do you think “off the record” really means?
New business journalist,
I’m afraid your contact is quite right to be furious. To most people, “off the record” means exactly that – they don’t expect you to publish what they tell you. Where the confusion arises is that some sources might say “off the record”, but actually mean “not for attribution” – meaning that you can write what they tell you as long as you don’t drag them into it. The key for any journalist is to be absolutely clear and specific – and make sure that your source is under no illusions. Remember that they might not be as familiar with the conventions of the business as you or your editor. It is always worth asking “can I say it this way?” at the end of an off-the-record chat. And if you’ve gone “off the record” in the middle of a conversation, make sure you’re clear at which point it goes back on.
I’ve even known a journalist who refused to take part in “off the record” conversations – her logic was that if they’d decided to tell you something, they’d eventually give it away anyway. Dr D wouldn’t go quite that far, but remember that you may be able to get someone else to go on the record with the points as long as you are careful not to compromise your source during your further research.
One last point about your contact not now taking your calls. It may be that the last thing he wants is a journalist calling his office – even if it is to apologise – at what could have become a very sensitive time.
Dear Dr Deadline,
I’m finding myself increasingly irritable when dealing with PR officers who seem either utterly ignorant or wilfully obstructive. How do you suggest I keep myself from ‘losing it’ with them?
Adopt a Zen-like approach of wisdom and patience. Then throw darts at the PR company’s logo.
It might pay to remember that, deep down, most PRs would prefer to be on your side of the fence. But Dr D believes it pays even more for journalists to realise, deep down, that one day they might find themselves on the other sideÃ‰
Got any questions for Dr Deadline? Or do you disagree with his advice? E-mail him on firstname.lastname@example.org