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Learning from McChrystal: are you really ever ‘off the record’?

Media - 30th June 2010
Media interview

President Obama’s firing of General Stanley McChrystal has highlighted the uncertainties of ‘off the record’ press briefings. With debate raging between McChrystal’s team and Rolling Stone over the ground rules agreed for the interview, the episode has shown the potential dangers of one of the least-understood practices in media relations. What does ‘off the record’ mean, how does it work in practice, and are the risks ever worth taking? We help guide you through the minefield.

Strictly speaking, agreeing to speak to a journalist off the record (‘OTR’) means that the information shared should not be published. This is distinct from information that is ‘not for attribution’, which the journalist is allowed to publish provided that the source is not named nor rendered easily identifiable. As the two concepts are frequently confused, it would be important to agree explicit terms prior to entering into a discussion.

An OTR press conversation can have attractions for both parties. The arrangement may make the briefer feel able to share background, context or motivation in a way that avoids potential embarrassment or repercussions while furthering the briefer’s own agenda. For the journalist, going OTR may be the route to underlying facts that bring a story alive.

However, the affair surrounding McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview demonstrates that a fault line lies beneath any such agreement: the briefer and the journalist have fundamentally different objectives. Typically, the briefer is motivated by gaining a personal advantage, whether commercial, political or other. Although commercial considerations may also be a factor for the media (such as not alienating an important advertiser), most journalists also feel a deep loyalty towards the needs of a story and what is in the public interest. What papers over this crack is when circumstances cause the interests of the briefer and journalist to converge.

When weighing up the risks of going OTR, there are several factors to consider:

1. Are you a big enough beast?

You are safer speaking OTR if the journalist stands to lose more than you should a confidence be betrayed. This is one of the reasons that OTR briefings are so common in the political realm, where reporters depend for their livelihoods on ongoing access to the same senior sources. (To see just how cosy the relationship between politicians and reporters can be, it is worth reading the account by ex-CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre of travelling as part of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s media entourage.) Therefore, the first point to consider dispassionately is, just how much does the journalist need you?

2. Where does the publication’s loyalty lie?

The type of media outlet you are dealing with is also an important risk indicator. Generally, trade publications see part of their role as supporting the industry and companies they cover. To act otherwise could risk undermining the goodwill, access and advertising support they depend upon. In contrast, mainstream news media like Rolling Stone feel no such constraints – their loyalty is to finding the story that will interest the greatest number of readers, which may or may not be helpful to your cause. This appears to be one of the points that McChrystal’s aides completely misjudged.

3. What is the reporter’s motive?

Many interviewees feel winded if they get negative write-up from a journalist they thought was a ‘friend’ or ‘one of us’. This is one of the most common OTR pitfalls, and overlooks the central point: that the interviewee and journalist have different underlying objectives. McChrystal’s aides reportedly took a measure of confidence from the fact that the aid worker girlfriend of journalist Michael Hastings had been killed in Iraq, presuming this loss would automatically predispose him towards the General’s position. In a similar misreading of a relationship, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign team felt betrayed when journalist Mayhill Fowler, a supposedly loyal campaign contributor, reported the candidate describing small-town Pennsylvanians as “clinging to guns and religion”.

A further issue, currently debated by journalists internationally, is whether Hastings’ status as a freelance reporter made him a bigger risk to McChrystal. As Jack Shafer discusses in online current affairs magazine

“According to this theory, freelancers happily burn their subjects because they’re not likely to return to them, whereas beat reporters must rely on maintaining good day-to-day relations with them.”

As professional journalists seem unable to reach a consensus on this point, it is hard to advise on a rule. However, the employment status of a reporter is perhaps another point to consider before speaking in confidence.

4. Have you clearly agreed the terms?

As the Washington Post reports, Rolling Stone and McChrystal’s aides are poles apart on the reporting agreement made with Hastings. The magazine argues that nothing reported in the article was subject to an OTR agreement, whereas the General’s camp has a very different understanding. At the most basic level, it is essential to ensure a clear and mutual understanding of precisely what is ‘on’ or ‘off’ the record before you open your mouth.

5. Does the public interest trump everything?

Perhaps the most common, visceral reaction to the McChrystal article has been: “What was he thinking?!” Particularly as the General had previously served as a Pentagon spokesman, he must surely have been sensitive to the political ramifications of his comments and those of his team. The apparent disdain with which senior serving officers regarded elected officials and their appointees was plainly a far bigger story politically than anything else discussed. It is precisely this sort of situation that puts the greatest strain on the relationship between the reporter and the reported, and the reporter will feel considerable pressure to adhere to the fundamental responsibilities of his or her trade, to report the truth as it affects others. The lesson here is to think through the wider implications of what you plan to say.

In light of McChrystal’s demise, are OTR briefings to be avoided at all costs? Unhelpfully, the answer must be: “It depends.” As we have argued previously, excessive caution or neutrality can kill potentially useful media relationships at birth. For most organisations, the greatest challenge is to get the media to be interested in you in the first place: the risk therefore is more of being ignored for want of interesting remarks, rather than being misquoted or publicly humiliated. To the extent that OTR briefings may play a useful role in this process, they should at least be considered as circumstances dictate.

However, the ultimate and most dependable rule about confidential remarks is also the simplest: if you would be uncomfortable to read your comments in print, or cannot tell how far any resulting shockwaves may travel, it is probably better to say nothing.