Memo to POTUS: There is no such thing as ‘off the record’

So, President Obama was off the record when he called Kanye West a “jackass” — a comment that was overheard and tweeted by ABC News “Nightline” co-anchor Terry Moran, and subsequently retweeted, Facebooked and otherwise spread virally throughout the social mediasphere.

Um, excuse me, but: Since when is a president — or any public figure — ever off the record?

Media Relations 101, Rule No. 1: There is no such thing as “off the record.” This goes for presidents of colleges and universities as well as presidents of the countries. It goes for any public figure. (This means you, too.)

Never assume you are ever off the record when talking to a reporter, a blogger, a tweeter. Never assume anything you say while prepping for an interview will not become the story.

This lesson is more important in today’s always-on mediasphere than it’s ever been.

Higher ed PR colleagues: Please make sure your university’s most visible, high-profile employees learn this rule. If you aren’t teaching it to them, then start. Use President Obama’s off-the-record gaffe as a teachable moment.

(Thanks to @SashaWolff for the L.A. Times story link.)

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

10 thoughts on “Memo to POTUS: There is no such thing as ‘off the record’”

  1. I think it says something sadder about journalistic integrity than it does about bloggers/twetters/whatevers need to publish things that are CLEARLY “off the record.” It’s sad that people feel the need to do this. I understand your point, but I also have a j-school degree under my belt and have been taught that it is absolutely unacceptable to quote anyone off the record. Ya just don’t do it.

  2. I agree with Lauren. It wasn’t that long ago that journalists recognized a certain level of decorum when dealing with principal newsmakers. Confusing actual news (presidential comments on health care reform, defense, etc.) with casual asides (was the nation really hinging on the president’s assessment of the Kanye situation?) is one of many sad illustrations of the demise of American journalism. Reporters used to have enough sense not to squander their credibility so cheaply; simply having access to Twitter does not demand that everything needs to be broadcast. The only reason the ABC reporter even heard the comment is because they share a fiber optic line with CNBC — since when is eavesdropping good reportage?

    There’s probably some truth to the whole “nothing is off the record” sentiment, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. Publishing every last dribble out there doesn’t make for better news, just more clutter.

    Too many Perez Hiltons out there, not enough Walter Cronkites.

  3. I hear my mother in my head… “Do do or say anything that you wouldn’t want to whole world to see or hear.” Be decent ALL the time, especially when no one is looking.

  4. “Off the record” very much still exists and has a place in today’s media.

    Before entering the world of media relations/higher ed I worked as an assignment editor for ABC News in Albany, NY. I would regularly interview people off the record.

    Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

    “Off the record” doesn’t just mean you don’t use the persons name – it means you can’t report that information at all. What off the record comments do is provide you with information that you then have to go track down and confirm with a secondary source. It’s basically just a tip.

    Regularly when I was asked by people to go off the record I would politely say no, but that I would take their name off the record. This way I could report the information, but cite it to a source close to the situation.

    I would use this practice with several high up officials within the state government to obtain information that would otherwise be unavailable.

    In this particular case, Obama slipped up and wanted to retroactively go off the record. The media has no responsibility to oblige such a request.

  5. I agree with your point here (though I think it was a pretty shrewd political move by Obama for the reason Ron cites). In fact not even high-profile employees need to worry about being on the record, but professors too if they know what’s good for them. It’s not exactly unheard of for academic articles to make it to the political news (Cass Sunstein, Ezekiel Emanuel, etc) or for recordings of classes to show up on Youtube (David Horowitz charged conservative students to document their liberal professors’ lectures at some point).

    But there’s another side of this. People also hate “political correctness” and the more people are worried about being on the record, the more people will speak bureaucratese. It’s a tough line to walk, and figuring out some best practices is important. Maybe the next generation will figure out how to speak your mind knowing it will probably appear on Youtube at some point.

  6. I just am trying to wrap my head around why the question was even asked: “Hey, important Black Person! Since you in some way represent ALL BLACK PEOPLE, why don’t you tell us your thoughts on what one particular person did?”

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