Why You Should Be Paranoid In Public

On October 3, 2000, Al Gore and George W. Bush squared off in the first of three presidential debates, an evening best remembered for Mr. Gore’s incessant sighing at his opponent’s answers.

I was in Tampa, Florida that night, helping to produce a CNN town hall meeting with a handful of undecided voters.
On the flight home the next day, a colleague and I dissected the previous night’s debate. We both concluded that it had been a disaster for Mr. Gore, and that he’d have to leave his boorish sighs behind for the second debate.

When we got off the plane, we starting walking toward baggage claim until my colleague recognized a fellow passenger.

“Oh, hello Mr. Secretary, “ my colleague said.

“Interesting conversation you were having on the plane,” he said.

It turns out that we failed to notice the passenger sitting directly in front of us on that flight, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman – one of Mr. Gore’s colleagues. Fortunately, the Secretary said he agreed with our remarks. But it’s a good metaphor for what can go wrong when spokespersons forget they’re always “on the record” when they speak in public.

I’m constantly amazed by what I observe in public – lawyers on packed Amtrak cars discussing sensitive cases loudly on their cell phones, businessmen working on documents marked “confidential” in plain sight on airplanes, and politicos hashing out controversial strategy over lunch within earshot of fellow diners.

Those people have no idea who I am. I could be their opposing counsel, or their direct business competitor, or a political reporter. And if I can use the information I learn against them, I will.

Media interviews don’t end when you hang up the phone or leave the studio. So it’s a good idea to treat any conversation in populated public space as an on-the-record interview.