All of us have heard the phrase “off the record” and have probably used it at one time or another. However, many of us do not realise that this is a request rather than a demand and, in order for it to be binding, it must be agreed to. Otherwise, as Apple recently discovered, anything stated is subject to reporting — and it’s usually a message you don’t want to broadcast.

By Thomas Roden, senior account executive

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, the tongue slips and confidential or controversial information is shared. Apple discovered this in 2016 when a representative began an e-mail by declaring “off the record” and the journalist did not consent and published the e-mail.

It’s a strange example, as it’s rare for a company to make this faux pas in an e-mail chain as opposed to a live interview. It is even stranger, because most PR experts and senior management know better than to assume confidentiality. Fortunately, the e-mail was not dangerously incriminating and is unlikely to seriously damage the company’s reputation in the long term.

However, this is not always the case. In 2010, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously forgot that his microphone was turned on as he referred to a critic as a bigot. This gaffe damaged the reputation of both him and the Labour party he represented, subsequently contributing to a failed electoral campaign.

There are countless other examples of tongues slipping and ruining hard-earned reputations. It’s a risk that many companies take when liaising with the media, so it’s important that spokespersons are properly media trained to ensure they do not accidentally give away trade secrets or, worse, legal indiscretions and questionable activity.

A good approach to ensuring you get the right message across is to decide on three core messages before communicating with the media. These points of refuge will help to focus your argument and keep you on message for the duration of the interview. Of course, this is only as effective as your conversational skills — we’ve all seen examples of politicians who robotically reel off these points of refuge during questioning.

Alternatively, you might want to consider using audio news releases (ANR) to get your message across without the risk of leading questions that might take you off topic. These are pre-packaged audio soundbites designed to get radio coverage for news stories or even to serve as interview responses for radio features.

With the use of an ANR or effective media training, companies can ensure they don’t fall into the same media pitfall as many politicians before them — oh, and also remember not to leave the microphone running!

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