Bannon’s problems arise from the fact that he addressed a broad range of newsworthy issues with a reporter, but apparently “never thought the journalist might take his comments and turn them into a story.” Suffice to say, Bannon didn’t make it clear his comments were “off the record”, a somewhat bemusing blunder from a former media executive (even before you consider the brief Anthony Scaramucci era).
Yes, the idea of on/off the record has always been one of the murkier aspects of communications. For a start, what does “off the record” mean? The common understanding is that journalists can’t attribute comments direct to the person that made them. That is certainly not to say that comments can’t be used, just simply that the person in question won’t be named. Reference to “anonymous sources” and “people familiar with the matter” are just two examples of how journalists will present views expressed to them off the record.
Most important to remember however is that it is incumbent on the interviewee (not the journalist) to make it clear that what they are saying is off the record! Any good journalist will come to an interview assuming that comments can be used and attributed to the person who said them, unless told otherwise.
A final and crucial point here is that interviewees need to make it clear in advance that comments they are making are off the record – deciding you want to something to be off the record afterwards is risky and there’s nothing to say a journalist has to adhere to this, particularly if comments are especially newsworthy.
All of this may sound overly complicated. Yet it is very important, particularly in an era of digital and social media where comments can be distributed widely within a matter of minutes, if not seconds. The potential for a full-blown PR crisis, as the White House has shown time and again, is significant.
Ultimately however, there is one more simple and basic rule that anyone can follow to avoid these pitfalls. Don’t want to see it in print – then don’t say in the first place.