The perils of 'off the record'



As communications director to Anthony Weiner, Barbara Morgan was probably secretly awaiting some controversial gaffe by a public figure that would distract the media's attention from her serial sexting employer.

Well, mission accomplished.

The problem (for Morgan, at least) was that she, herself, was the source of the controversial distraction. While reacting to news that a former intern had written a disparaging article about Weiner and his mayoral campaign in the New York Daily News, Morgan launched into a hard-core, foul-mouthed tirade about the former intern while speaking to a reporter.

Morgan was discussing an unrelated story with a reporter for Talking Points Memo when she apparently went off on the intern, using a number of particularly colourful and definitely-NSFW adjectives. The profanity-laden lambasting generated hundreds of negative media articles and raised questions about why Morgan would use such derogatory, discriminatory language to insult a former colleague. 

Morgan has since apologized and claims she thought she was speaking off the record during the exchange. The reporter who wrote the story disputes that claim, saying it was very clear that Morgan was speaking on the record. 

The controversy underscores the pitfalls associated with having 'off the record' as a tool in your media relations arsenal. Ultimately, it's the reporter who decides whether the material will be used in their story. And many journalists may have different rules governing what constitutes 'off the record' to them.

But wait...what about Weiner? He's now dropped to fourth place in the race, his campaign manager has resigned and former interns are writing tell-alls. His campaign is being referred to by some as a circus and at there's at least one song parody out there. While Weiner has done himself some serious reputational harm this past week or so, Morgan's media flare-up certainly isn't helping the situation.

The latest incident serves as a reminder that 'off the record' should be handled with the same type of care one would reserve for, say, the dismantling of an explosive device. Or perhaps travelling in a moving vehicle with a wild tiger.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules about when 'off the record' rules should apply and what the specifics of those rules might be in a given situation. And while some people suggest that simply stating "This is off the record" is enough to ensure the reporter won't use any of that material in his or her story, many reporters will tell you that unless they explicitly agree, anything a spokesperson says during the exchange is fair game. 

In our media training sessions, we tell participants that one of their most important media relations objectives should be to get a good night's sleep after their interview. A good night's sleep is the result of a disciplined, strategic approach to conducting media interviews. It's about knowing what your quotes will be in advance. It's about being prepared to handle curve ball questions without making the situation worse. And it's about possessing the tools necessary to steer your answers in the areas that you want to talk about.

From a spokesperson's standpoint, going 'off the record' isn't conducive to a good night's sleep.

And for that reason, we tell people to avoid it.