The Cabinet Secretary and the Reporter: A Parable

The Cabinet Secretary and the Reporter: A Parable
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool
The Cabinet Secretary and the Reporter: A Parable
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool
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The recent kerfuffle between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Public Radio’s Mary Louise Kelly provides a perfect opportunity to review the rules of the road when it comes to engagement with media. It is clear, and not just from this incident, that sources and principals have become unfamiliar with the norms, if they ever knew them. And for the media, a refresher is never a bad idea. The upside is that by adhering more closely to the rules, both sides may help their standing with the public, which unfortunately has a dim view of both our elected officials and the media.

The Basics

“Off the record” is an overused and misused phrase. It means that any information you get from an off-the-record conversation is just that. The information and the source can’t be publicly used or repeated. The information could be used in the pursuit of a story, but to use the information you learned in an “off the record” conversation, you would have to find another source.

Additionally, both sides must agree to the arrangement. Just because one side says a conversation or part of a conversation is off the record—and it is almost always the source or interview subject who requests it—does not mean the conversation is off the record. And the words “off the record” must be used. “Just between us” or “you and me” is not off the record. If asked to go “off the record,” the reporter must affirmatively agree. If the reporter does not, then the conversation is not off the record; it is on the record. It is possible that this is what happened in the case of Secretary Pompeo’s post-interview meeting with Mary Louise Kelly; Pompeo asked, or said their post-interview conversation was off the record, but she did not agree in the affirmative. A non-response in such situations does not mean agreement.

The Rules of the Road

“Off the Record” level of attribution should never be used under these conditions:

  • To yell at a reporter. This is a cheap trick, unfair and the province of people who have little confidence in their convictions. If you want to tell a reporter you thought they did a bad job on a story or interview, tell them directly. No need to curse, question their intelligence or threaten them. Use facts. It will work out much better in the end.
  • To share gossip about an opponent, competitor or anyone for that matter. While the press may like this use of off the record, it is the domain of the weak. Leave such talk to the tabloids.
  • To plant a negative seed about an opponent—political, corporate or anyone. Again, this is the domain of the weak. This of course would make a reporter’s job harder, but so be it.

In these last two scenarios, it is not to say such information cannot be shared. It should be done on background or deep background (see below for definitions). This makes it less likely information will be made up if there is some attribution to it.

What the “off the record” level of attribution should be used for:

  • If a reporter has information you know to be false, you can and should warn him or her against printing or releasing such information. Tell the reporter why.
  • If a reporter is looking for information to broadly inform a story—not to source information, but to provide a context, explain a process, describe how decisions get made or something similar. This is information the reporter can use, but as his own.

The other arrangements for discussions between media and sources are:

On Background

  • This is information that can be used, quoted or paraphrased. The only condition is that the source not be directly identified. Usually, these sources are characterized by their position—such as a former so-and-so—but the exact nature of the attribution is negotiated between the source and reporter.

On Deep Background

  • This is information that can be used, generally paraphrased, but not quoted directly. While the condition is that the source is not directly identified, the level of separation from the source is one layer down from background. Usually, the source is described as someone with knowledge of the situation, close to the decision maker, or sometimes attribution is written as being someone not authorized to speak on the record. But like background, it is a negotiated agreement.

On the Record

  • Could not be clearer. When you go on the record, what you say is permanent in your name. You can’t take anything back, you can’t change status post conversation.

Written down, the rules are simple. In practice not so much. We would all be well-served to review them and do our best to live by them. Politics is difficult enough.

William A. Pierce is a media trainer and 30-year veteran of Washington media relations. He has been a spokesman for two members of Congress, two former presidents, a Cabinet secretary, a health trade association, and APCO Worldwide clients. 

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