Hey Big Daddy,
I’m a senior staff member in the Capitol, and my job description doesn’t
include dealing with the press. But I keep getting pestered continuously by
reporters who want information and promise to keep it “off the record.” The
reporters are loud and noisy and poorly dressed, and I refuse to talk to any
of them. My friend says I should talk to the reporters off the record and
use them to get my boss’ message into the media. What is meant by “off the
record?” Do you think I should talk to reporters?
– Suspicious in Sacramento
You are right to be, well, suspicious. “Off the record” is the journalistic
equivalent of a man telling you that he just wants to cuddle. And there’s a
fair chance that both scenarios will end up the same way.
Knowing that going in, a couple of basic guidelines can help guide you
through the minefield of the well-placed leak.
First: Much like the aformentioned “cuddler,” beware of the reporter who
drinks clear alcohol, or anything mixed with Coca-Cola. Are you sure there’s
gin in that tall glass of tonic water of hers? And have you noticed that as
you crunch on the ice of your second cocktail, the reporter’s eyes have
begun to focus elsewhere, as if they’re wondering how they’re going to
remember all this without writing it down?
That said, it’s dangerous to talk to reporters, but it can be more dangerous
not to. Media freeze outs are a good way for your boss to develop a
reputation as a control freak, a half-wit or downright irrelevant. So go
ahead and talk to reporters, but be very, very careful who you talk to, and
know the ground rules before you start.
Before we continue, let’s dispel a major myth: that of the “feeding of the
media beast.” Beast is an overstatement. Most journalists need the care and
feeding of a hamster. A few food pellets now and again, an occasional spin
on the proverbial exercise wheel, and they’re likely not to scratch or bite.
That is, until the next feeding time. But as long as you maintain the upper
hand, and realize they need you as much if not more than you need them, you
will begin to see results.
But don’t mess around with phrases like “off the record.” If your boss is
going to go ballistic if he or she thinks you’re leaking to the press, tell
your little hamster friend that your name, or your boss’s name cannot appear
in print. An Assemblymember’s office ain’t exactly IBM. How many of you are
there in Assemblyman X’s office? Three?
Even a legislator can figure that one out.
Above all else, remember: Reporters are out to manipulate you, just as you
are out to manipulate them. But a well-cultivated relationship with a
reporter, while potentially dangerous, can also be mutually beneficial. Even
if you are just cuddling.