Went to a lunch presentation yesterday about what is really Off the Record and came away reinforcing my opinion that nothing is. The conversation was set up by Ed Barks who is a well-known media trainer in DC and given at a Capitol Communicators' Group lunch. Ed gave definitions for each of the terms – OTR, deep background, not for attribution, etc. If it’s a writer you know really well and trust you could go OTR, but I would still recommend that a client not do it.
In this age of social media you can develop messages for clients and coach them, but reporters are smart and they know how to manipulate people. I know, I was one. I think it’s better to take the approach that anything you say will be made public. That way you’ll be more careful.
The most interesting presentation was by Donna Leinwand, a justice and crime reporter for USA Today. She reminded us that what your client says isn’t everything. Good reporters notice details and will write about them.
Think about where the interview is taking place, who escorts the reporter out of the building, and those final moments when everyone is relaxed and more likely to say something they don’t want too. Also remember you should be careful of the follow-up questions, sent by email or delivered by phone.
Here are a few of the PR faux pas that Donna mentioned:
• A senior executive was wearing mismatched socks and she put it into her profile of him. He called her up after it ran and was furious.
• If you don’t want people to know you smoke don’t do it. Another senior executive chomped on a cigar throughout an entire interview and then his wife called Donna after the piece ran complaining that he was trying to quit and she shouldn’t have written that.
• Donna interviewed a DEA official along with a Rolling Stone reporter in Amsterdam at a local coffee house (translation legal dispenser of marijuana). The Rolling Stone reporter lit up a joint and she mentioned it in her copy. As you can imagine, the DEA official was beside himself.
• Clear your desk or conference room table before an interview. I used to read everything on a CEO’s desk as he was talking – and yes it was all upside down.