When Am I 'On the Record' With a Journalist?

Flickr Photo by William Murphy

Flickr Photo by William Murphy

When preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an interview, you invariably spend time coaching them on what to say and how to act when the camera is rolling or when the reporter is scribbling notes.

But do you also prep them for what to do when the “on air” light is off or when the reporter closes the notebook?

If you aren’t, you’re overlooking a crucial detail — one that can lead to some unfortunate headlines.

That’s because everything that happens during that encounter — from the moment you say hello to the moment you’re out of sight — is considered on the record. In other words, every statement you make can end up being reported.

To be sure, there are times when you can mutually agree to go off the record (and we’ll get into the mechanics of going off the record in a future post). But unless you deliberately take that step, you should keep in mind that you’re “on”.

As a result, if you’re preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an appearance or interview, it’s important that you take the time to let that person know what that means.

Unfortunately, a seemingly private comment about a cranky board member or an off-color joke is fair game — and it could end up working its way into a story.

Claiming after the fact that you didn’t know that the statement was made off camera or after the formal interview doesn’t cut it. By law — and by practice — journalists assume that you know the rules and they are often looking for well-schooled sources to say something candid or off the cuff.

This shouldn’t scare you away from doing interviews. It just means you need to act and speak deliberately.

Here is some advice on how you should prepare for some common situations:

Meetings with print media journalists

When I worked as a writer for newspapers and magazines, I often unearthed some great information after I closed my notebook at the end of a formal interview.

Often, as a source and I would exchange informal chitchat and discuss next steps, the source — feeling more relaxed — would offer some interesting perspectives or anecdotes that added to the story I was pursuing or gave me an idea for another piece.

My practice would typically be to say “I’d like to use that, do you mind if I follow up or ask you more about it now?”

Almost always, the source would agree to share more information.

But even if the source didn’t want to share more, there wasn’t much they could do about what they had already said — other than refuse to take additional questions about it or attempt to steer the conversation in another direction.

When meeting with a print reporter — a term that, for the sake of this piece, includes those who write articles for newspapers, magazines or the web — there is typically a period of time before and after the formal interview where you exchange greetings and goodbyes.

Make sure you reinforce this point with your organization’s representative ahead of the interview — and let that person know that the entire conversation is on the record.

If the representative has concerns, offer some potential topics of conversation that they can bring up during these more informal portions of the interview — and discuss some things they should avoid saying or doing.

Television, radio and digital media

Recent history is littered with examples of politicians and celebrities who have gotten themselves in hot water for saying something that was picked up by a ‘hot mic’.

President Donald Trump, one assumes, likely wishes he had kept his mouth shut when he was engaging in “locker room talk” with Billy Bush on that Access Hollywood tour bus. Same goes for Robert Durst, who was caught on microphone talking to himself about his role in a high-profile series of murders during the taping of a documentary series.

The lesson for nonprofit communicators is simple — if you’re going on television or on the radio, assume that everything you say is getting picked up on a microphone, even if you’re not technically “on air”.

Even if the camera does not appear to be rolling or the radio segment has gone to commercial, you should assume the audio is being recorded and that anything you say can be picked up and used later.

Again, it’s important to emphasize this point to representatives from your organization who are not experienced with on-air interviews to be sure that they are aware of the ground rules and are well prepared.

Social media

Finally, it’s worth noting that comments you make on social media — whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or another source — are also “on the record.” Increasingly, media outlets are quoting statements made by individuals on the social networks in their reporting.

As a result, it’s important for officials at your organization to recognize this fact and to be careful about what they post and what they comment on.

If you wouldn’t want what you said on Facebook to appear in your local newspaper or on the TV news, it’s probably best not to say it at all.

 

Note: I originally wrote this post for Nonprofit Marketing Guide, where I serve as a regular advisor on media relations for nonprofits.