Monday, September 21, 2009

Don't Try This at Home II

A while back we posted some thoughts about the dangers of going "off the record". Recently, President Obama ran into trouble wading through this uncharted territory, which is defined by the question: what, exactly, does "off-the-record" mean. This episode highlights a new question: does technology change those meanings?

The issue came up when the President called hip hop artist Kanye West a "jack-ass," in what Obama thought was an off-the-record conversation. (West, you may recall, stormed the stage and gave a foolish, self-centered speech in his native gibberish at this year’s VMAs, upstaging another artist who had actually won an award.) But the reporter in the interview from ABC Twittered it, and so it got "out there", much to the chagrin of the White House.

(This raises another question: Maybe I’m old school, but who, exactly, sits in the Oval Office fiddling with their Blackberry while conducting an interview with the President of the United States?)

The good news for the president? Well, his language wasn’t "too" salty, and he said something that most folks who cared actually agreed with.

Some of the discussion about "off-the-record" seemed to center around whether or not Twitter is a media outlet that would be covered by an off-the-record agreement. This strikes me as being besides the point, and ABC apparently agreed, apologizing for breaking their agreement with the President. But the real issue is the degree to which technology moved so fast that ABC’s editorial process couldn’t keep up. One more thing for reporters, Presidents and the rest of us in the business to be mindful of.

Also of note: if you listen to the recording, you can hear the President say, "Cut the President some slack," after his comments about West. This sheds light on my view that your ability to enforce an off-the-record agreement often depends, in part, on how much leverage you have. Sometimes you don’t have any leverage. If you’re the president, you would think that you and your press office have a great deal of leverage with covering media. Nevertheless, the president was out there; technology had let the cat was out of the bag and no amount of presidential leverage could get the cat back in. I just wouldn’t want to be that reporter going forward as I tried to cover the White House. ("Excuse me, Mr. Emmanuel would like a word with you.")

This episode highlights how dangerous the "off-the-record" waters can be, and offers an interesting window into how the speed of the new media can nullify old ways of managing the relationship between covering and covered.

Nevertheless, my advice to clients remains the same: be very, very careful out there.

Posted by David Preston

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