Public relations

Careful! Nothing is ‘off the record’ in a media interview

- March 27, 2023 3 MIN READ
Journalist interviewing business man in front of TV camera

One of the most common pitfalls spokespeople and companies make when engaging with the media is to think that information can be given to journalists ‘off the record’. Once an interview starts, you can expect every word you utter to be potentially used in a story, writes Anthony Caruana and Kathryn Van Kuyk, co-CEOs and co-founders of Media-Wize.

The golden rule is if you don’t want something reported, don’t say it!

If you reconsider your comments and want to have something removed from the record after the interview, it’s too late.

The only exception to the ‘off the record’ rule is a background briefing. Some companies will run briefing sessions for the media as a way of educating them to assist them with preparing for future interviews or other stories.

For example, a large mining company ran a media briefing to talk about the work they were doing with autonomous vehicles, mine site rehabilitation and a number of other programs. The invitation to the session made it clear this was a learning opportunity for the media and not a story opportunity.

A major technology company runs media briefings when they release new products in order to show the newest features and innovations they’ve been working on. Again, the information is provided as background to assist the media.

But, this is the domain of very large companies and not something journalists will agree to with small businesses.

Everything is ‘on the record’

Any discussion with a journalist, even if not a formal interview, is also still on the record. If you bump into a journalist in an elevator and they ask you a question, your response is quotable. Same goes if you bump into one at an event, and also before and after the interview ‘officially’ starts or concludes. The banter before and after what spokespeople thought was the actual interview with the journalist has landed many in hot water.

It is best to consider every word you speak or a journalist could overhear in a public place or your office as potentially quotable and always be aware of what you say, how and when you say it and who might be able to hear it.

journalist holding microphone and notepad in media interview

Never say “no comment”

There will be times when you are unable to answer a question. If you’re talking to the media during a crisis, you may need to defer an interview or not answer a question because you don’t yet have enough information to give an informed answer.

You may be asked about a specific incident or data point that you have not anticipated and prepared for. Or you may not be allowed to speak about a particular topic because you’re not the approved spokesperson, or a matter is before the courts.

If you’re asked a question you cannot answer, do not respond with “no comment”.

A better answer is “I can’t answer that because …” or “I will need to check on that and get back to you via email later today”, and give a clear and honest reason why you can’t answer now.

Saying “no comment” is dismissive and can give the impression you’re trying to hide something. But explaining why you can’t answer a question helps to lay down the ground rules for future questions and lets the journalist know there’s a good reason you can’t answer something, rather than straight out avoidance.

Never ask to check the story before it is published

It is important to understand that journalists control how a story is told and what information from the interview they will use. They get very snarky if they’re asked by an interviewee or their PR representative to see the story before it is published, and will refuse.

If you want to vet the copy and have it written the way you want, then you need to buy advertising or sponsored content and control the message.

Independent editorial on merit means understanding the risk vs benefit equation. This is why media training, anticipating likely questions, and practicing and honing messages in a safe environment is so important.

Saying “no comment” may play well in the movies or on TV. But the real world is not the same.

There are better ways to respond if you’re asked a question you can’t answer. The key is to be as well prepared as possible so you can handle challenging situations without getting the media offside, and ensure you always present your brand and business in the best light.


This article was first published on Kochie’s Business Builders, read the original here.

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