This week, Donald Trump joined a litany of celebrities, politicians and business executives who found themselves in hot water for words they said – but never intended for the public to hear. Meanwhile, Wikileaks was dumping thousands of private emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign. Politics aside, these revelations raise an important tenet of media relations that we would all be well served to remember: we are always on the record.
With this in mind, I’ve put together our media relations playbook for staying off the record and protecting your personal reputation and professional brand:
- Never assume you are off the record. In fact, I would probably reword this to say, ‘Always assume you are on the record.’ Suki Kim, a New York Times bestselling author learned this the hard way when at a book festival in Brisbane, Australia. Having drinks with a few friends at an exclusive invite-only event, she criticized another author. Four days later she was shocked to find her remarks repeated in a New York Times story written by an ‘off duty’ reporter who happened to be there previewing his own book. She knew he was a reporter, but wrongfully assumed she was off record since it was in a casual setting.
- Know your surroundings. In the past, reporters could easily be identified by their oh-so-official press badges and media credentials. But today, where media blend in and everyone with a smartphone is a self-proclaimed citizen journalist, nothing is sacred. Whether it is a cocktail reception, industry event, lunch with a colleague, or even your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, always go in with the understanding that what you do or say might be overheard and made public.
- Just like you have a job to do, so do reporters – and it is not to be your friend. Don’t get me wrong, I highly encourage my clients to build relationships with the media, just as I do myself. That means going to lunch, grabbing after hours drinks or simply picking up the phone to see what they are working on and how you might be able to help. But in every interaction you have, remember that their job is to be on the hunt for breaking news and insider information. If you inadvertently hand it to them on a silver platter, they will use it to their advantage.
- Be wary of the ‘unintentional’ news story. NFL quarterback Johnny Manziel made headlines a couple of months ago after his attorney accidentally sent an AP reporter a ldamaging text about the football pro’s confidential plea deal and struggle with drug addiction. The errant text, which was intended for another lawyer on the case, became prime fodder for AP’s next big scoop and further damaged Manziel’s image. The same cautionary tale applies to email, which is only a click away from falling into the wrong hands, not to mention at risk of becoming public through cyber breaches and public records requests. In other words, if you wouldn’t say something in public, don’t put it in writing.
- Social media is fair game.Your Facebook account may be reserved for sharing family photos with friends or weighing in on the latest current events, but don’t assume what you post is limited just to your circle of followers. In today’s digital age, everything online has an indefinite shelf life and is free for the taking, making it ripe for reporters looking to beef up their coverage.
Now, don’t get me wrong: sometimes we do go off the record with clients in limited and carefully-controlled situations. Doing so should only be done in the company of a public relations professional and with extreme caution, thoughtfulness, and a thorough understanding of what’s at stake.