Reporter Ryan Lizza’s article detailing an explosive phone call with now former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci broke the internet and, within the week, was The New Yorker’s most-read piece of 2017.
Whether Scaramucci didn’t understand the rules of journalism or simply ignored them, the way he handled this conversation and the lightning-rod chain reaction that followed cost him his job.
After the article was published, Scaramucci tweeted “I made a mistake in trusting a reporter. It won’t happen again.”
Actually, his mistake was not saying the three little words that could have kept him in his White House job: “off the record.”
While some question whether Lizza should have printed the contents of their phone call as a reporter, he had every right to do so. He even called Scaramucci before it was posted to tell him about it.
A lot of people think reporters, and “the media” in general, are out to get us. In my experience, it’s simply not true. However, it’s important to understand when a reporter can and cannot print what you say.
According to the Associated Press (AP), here are the distinctions you need to know before speaking to a reporter.
On the record: The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.
Background: The information can be published, but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position.
Deep background: The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.
Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication.
So what should you do when a reporter asks you about something sensitive or potentially controversial? Here are some tips we have found most helpful to our clients – working both as and with reporters.
“No comment” is not the answer –These two words raise suspicion about what you may be hiding. It also makes you seem uncooperative. Instead, offer to connect the reporter with someone else, either in your organization or elsewhere, who can help. You might say, “I’m not the best one to answer that question but let me find the right person for you.” This deflection makes you appear cooperative without divulging sensitive information.
Don’t speak off the record. Unless you’re the next Deep Throat, talking with a reporter off the record often won’t benefit you or your organization. The phrase creates an unnecessary haze of mystery for the speaker and his or her organization, and could pave a path towards more trouble in the future. It’s best not to say anything to the media to which you would not want your name attached. (Actually, this is good advice for life in general.)
Choose your words – and how you say them – carefully. Even when chatting before or after an interview, whether you’re officially on the record yet or not, the reporter is always listening and gathering information. Likewise, be aware of your tone. Sarcasm, jokes and flippant remarks don’t often translate well in print. This is true, too, if emailing with a reporter. Email is a tough way to communicate. Much can get lost in translation. Be aware and careful.