Reputable journalists do their best to attribute the information they publish to a relevant, named source. Offering transparency about a source’s identity, connection to the story and direct quote benefits a journalist’s audience because it builds credibility and allows readers to trust the information.
However, there are certain situations where explicit identification or direct quotes may put a source at risk. In addition, forming an agreement with a journalist not to publish certain information may allow for more freedom of communication while still influencing subsequent reporting. Sharing confidential information can also build rapport by demonstrating trust and helping journalists prepare for coverage of future news. PR professionals act as information brokers and knowing how, when and if to share information must be a skill in our toolbox.
Agreeing to the Terms
AP’s guidelines allow journalists to “shield [sources] with anonymity only when they insist upon it for a valid reason and when they provide vital information – not opinion or speculation; when there is no other way to obtain that information; and when [journalists] are confident the source is reliable and in a position to know.” Most journalists will not be interested in reporting information from anonymous sources without a good reason.
One of the key mistakes that sources can make when sharing confidential information is not understanding that terms like “on background” or “off the record” aren’t magical words that you can say after you overshare to protect yourself.
Anonymity and confidentiality in all its forms is an agreement that journalists make with their sources; if a journalist didn’t agree to the terms before a source shared information, they’re not breaking any laws or being unethical if they publish it. It’s also not rude for journalists to refuse to take a lead “on background” as they may not want to accept confidential information or navigate the intricacies of non-attribution with a source.
On the other hand, journalists may offer to pull attribution or information to maintain their relationship with a valuable source. They may also use non-attribution or an “on background” discussion to learn more about a story than they may have otherwise.
Terms like “on background” and “off the record” suggest different levels of confidentiality or anonymity, but discrepancies about their definitions can set sources and journalists up for disagreements. Here are some of the generally accepted definitions for different information-sharing agreements that sources can make with journalists:
- “On the record” – When someone agrees to share information “on the record,” the journalist understands that they can directly quote the source with clear attribution (e.g., name, title, relevance to the story). Unless specified in advance, everything you say to a journalist is on the record.
- “Under embargo” – This term indicates you’re sharing “on the record” information with a journalist with a caveat; when the journalist agrees to receiving information under embargo, they’re agreeing not to publish it until a specified time or until certain conditions are met.
- “On background”/ “not for attribution” – If information is shared “on background” or “not for attribution,” journalists may not share the source’s name, exact job title or other uniquely identifying details. All involved parties must explicitly agree in advance on whether the journalist can directly quote sources and the level of detail they can use when describing the source’s relevance.
- “Deep background” – This level of confidentiality requires journalists to paraphrase the information they’ve learned and to not include any description of the source. The journalist must share the information on their own authority, phrased similarly to “It has been learned that… .” This requires a high degree of trust between source and journalist. Deep background is also known as the Lindley Rule, named after Ernest K. Lindley, a Newsweek columnist who used it during the Truman administration to persuade U.S. leaders to discuss military and diplomatic affairs.
- “Off the record” – Typically, information shared “off the record” is solely for the journalist’s knowledge and cannot be referenced at all. Sharing information off the record can allow journalists to find and possibly quote similar information from another source; this can allow people to steer a journalist to a story without connecting the information to themselves. However, in the case of the U.S. Government, its “off the record” policy requires that “Nothing of what the journalist is told may be used in the story. The information is meant only for the education of the reporter.” The term “off the record” was first used by President F. D. Roosevelt in the 1930s.
Tips for PR Pros
When working with a client, there are a handful of things you should make sure you’re doing to protect your client and any organizations they represent.
- Evaluate the reasons for sharing confidential information. It may be beneficial to avoid sharing information that would be harmful if published in full.
- Discuss the terms and their definitions with spokespeople. Clarify that these agreements should be reached ahead of time and that they aren’t legally binding. Make sure everyone is on the same page before your client shares something they can’t take back.
- Suggest and confirm attribution descriptions with spokespeople. Discuss the terminology and phrasing a journalist should use to reference your client in the instance that information is shared “on background.”
- Don’t change topics. Encourage spokespeople to stick to one topic when on background or off the record to avoid bringing up confidential information that wasn’t meant to be shared.
- For high-stakes confidentiality situations, set up an NDA. Putting an agreement in writing can establish clear ground rules and offer some assurance to your client.
- If you don’t want something in print, don’t share it with a journalist. Even if you and your client do everything right, there’s still a chance that a journalist may leak or publish information.
Establishing clear guidelines around sourcing and sharing privileged information is a key step that allows both journalists and PR professionals to navigate confidential conversations confidently and respectfully.