Public Relations Rules for Off the Record Chats

2021-08-15 by Ronn Torossian
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Although having an off-the-record conversation with a reporter sounds complex or even mysterious, it’s a very effective public relations tool. Whether that means a business owner is providing honest information about a trend in the industry that they find frustrating, or trying to find a way to ease the impact of an upcoming story about the company itself, there are plenty of benefits when it comes to off the record conversations with the press, even though their impact tends to be indirect. 

Additionally, off-the-record conversations aren’t just limited to crisis management or politics, although they’re mostly mentioned in those contexts. These types of conversations can be beneficial for technology or business PR as well as storytelling. 

When a conversation is considered to be off the record there’s an understanding between the journalist and whoever they’re talking to that the journalist will not quote that conversation, or even paraphrase what’s being said. There will be no mention or record of that information anywhere.  

While some people believe that there’s no reason to have off-the-record conversations when the information can’t be used, they are still important. This is because they can be used as a tool to share valuable information with a journalist, which can then guide their future research. These conversations can also help shape any future coverage of the company in different meaningful ways. However, when looking to reference some pieces of that conversation, the journalist will have to refer to other sources or proof. 

Written Agreement 

One thing that everyone should keep in mind is that off-the-record agreements are not legally binding, but they are still a culturally accepted method in the news industry for sourcing information. Generally, journalists honor the off-the-record agreements they make because they want to maintain their relationships and levels of trust with their sources while still sharing worthwhile news and information. Although mistakes can happen and some information can end up public, it’s important to get the agreement in writing, before the conversation ever happens, and then to reconfirm the guidelines once the conversation has finished. 

Sharing Information 

Having an off-the-record conversation means that the spokesperson is in the perfect spot to share some essential information. That means it’s not an opportunity to speak freely about every opinion they have simply because the conversation is off the record. There’s no need to go overboard when chatting with a journalist off the record.  Otherwise, that person risks having the reporter going down the wrong direction. 

That’s why it’s important for whoever is having an off-the-record conversation with a journalist to stick to a single topic or talking point and to continuously stick to it.  This is the only way to avoid talking about potentially relevant points or sharing too much information that’s not relevant. 

Ronn Torossian: Insights from a Native New Yorker and CEO of 5WPR

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 200 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions. Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider, and a recipient of Crain’s New York 2021 Most Notable in Marketing & PR. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and has authored two editions of his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations," which is an industry best-seller. A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities