Thursday, March 13, 2008

Don’t Try This at Home!

Some “unauthorized candor” about Hilary Clinton, coupled with an amateurish attempt to go “off the record” got one of Barack Obama’s advisors bounced from his campaign recently. The advisor, Samantha Power, observed that the junior senator from New York is “a monster, too—that is off the record—she is stooping to anything.” You would think that someone at Power’s level would have known better.

“Off the record” is one of those terms that often gets tossed about too casually – and with dangerous consequences. When we conduct media training for clients, we usually caution against the “off the record” approach. Instead, if there’s something that needs to be conveyed to the reporter without fingerprints, we’ll usually work with the client and the reporter to safely pass the information along without someone poking their personal or professional eye out.

Power’s primary mistake (there was more than one here) was not to get explicit agreement from the reporter about conditions before saying the thing that she didn’t want attributed to herself. Another danger in going “off the record” is that there are numerous variations and interpretations of the term. The lack of clear, universally understood definitions can be very dangerous for the interviewee, who – for a lack of clarity about the agreement - may see their name on-line in minutes next to a quote that could end their career, etc.

One more thing – Powers looks like she’s wasting an “off the record” chip to merely make a personal attack. I’d recommend against that.

Slate did a nice job in considering the ramifications of going “off the record”. The State Department’s web site offers the most succinct summary of the rules I’ve seen (although I have some questions about their definitions).

My advice, in short – don’t try this at home!