November 21, 2011
PR professionals — and some former and current journalists — are debating whether it’s realistic to expect “off the record” conversations to stay private. In a Ragan video interview, Johna Burke, senior vice president at marketing company BurellesLuce, says confidentiality is a “mythical creature” and counsels, “As a general practice, never believe in ‘off the record’ because you just can’t rely on it.” Burke suggests that non-journalists who are blogging might not share the same understanding of “off the record” as the source. PR professionals and journalists respond:

  • “One survey of five journalists working for The Washington Post found that even journalists for the same news organization have widely divergent views of what off-the-record even means,” Brad Phillips comments.
  • “As a journalist of 25 years, turned PR guy for the past 6 years, this is a tough one for me. I always protected my sources and we built a solid trust because of our one-to-one relationship. Over the years, I’ve seen the boundaries move, driven largely by the ‘have to have it now’ news cycle,” comments Marc Williams.
  • “The ‘Off-the-Record’ policy of one major market daily I deal with on a regular basis reads something like this: A reporter is permitted to agree to keep certain information off-the-record. However, if either the reporter or his/her editor deems the ‘off-the-record’ information newsworthy then the publication reserves the right to publish that information. Not surprisingly, the paper’s reporters rarely inform sources of the second half of the policy (even if they are aware of it),” says Ken Anderson.

Related: Senate staffers claimed their public tweets were off the record | Bilton’s tweet sparks debate about ‘off the record,’ with little agreement about what it means | Questions to ask before going ‘off the record’

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Julie Moos ( has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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