In his short but impactful tenure as White House Communications Director, Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci taught anyone new at interacting with the press a valuable lesson – understand and be wary of going “Off the Record” (OTR) with the media.
OTR is the highest level of confidentiality an interviewee can request from a member of the media. It basically translates to: don’t quote, reference or allude to anything said under this cover. In practical terms, it is a very challenging method to employ. OTR implicitly requires a high level of trust with a reporter and works best when you have value, as a source for future stories, to bring to the table. The Mooch certainly had the latter, and had he requested to go OTR with New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, his profane rant on White House happenings might have remained private. Media critic Margaret Sullivan at The Washington Post explored this issue in a recent column.
If asked, as a rule, we advise clients to avoid going OTR. Instead, every comment should be carefully considered and understood to have the potential to appear in coverage. Here are just a few considerations with OTR:
1. It Isn’t Illegal to Break OTR Confidence – There is no law that says what is said under an OTR understanding will remain private. The dynamic is based on journalistic ethics, and as stated earlier, the need to value a source in the long run as opposed to chasing clicks in the short term.
2. OTR Cannot be Assumed and Can be Denied – If OTR is desired, it must be verbally verified – upfront. “This is off the record, correct?” A reporter can also say no. One cannot ask for OTR retroactively. You may be denied.
The Mooch gave his explanation to the OTR gaffe:
Most of what I said was humorous and joking. Legally, it may have been on-the-record, but the spirit of it was off.
It was on-the-record and extremely newsworthy. And my job is to put that in the public domain.
3. You Can Still Negatively Influence Future Coverage – If, for instance, you unload about dysfunction at a company involved in a transaction, you can be sure that an interested reporter will independently keep an eye on this issue. As The Mooch taught us, reporters are not therapists.
4. OTR Should Only be Used for Strategic Purposes – Journalists and sources often develop friendly rapports. Traditionally, this has led to candid private conversations between say politicians and reporters. A senator might go OTR to say, “This bill is DOA.” The value in this remark is in fostering the personal relationship, which may help inform future coverage. Many interactions with the media, however, are one-offs, meaning that going OTR isn’t a good move. Value or candor is being provided, but it’s a one-way street.
5. OTR Lies Can Have Major Repercussions – Being deceitful under the veil of OTR is never a good long-term move. Let’s say there is a real crisis at your firm. Partners are leaving in droves. You know that there is talk that the firm may need to reorganize. Asked by a reporter about the future of the firm you reply, “We’re actually about to announce a slate of new hirings and possibly acquire a firm. We’re growing, really.” You may help put off some negative coverage in the short term, but you are inviting a pillorying when the firm does indeed reorganize.
Be strategic, be judicious and be honest with the media. They have an important job to do, and you need to ensure that they are provided with pertinent facts, insightful and respectful commentary and nothing more. Save your salty language and your palace intrigue. Don’t be like The Mooch.