When Is It Appropriate To Go "On Background?"

If you take a media training course, one of the first pieces of advice you’ll hear is this: Never, ever go “on background” with a reporter.

It’s a safe and often prudent piece of advice – after all, we’ve all seen spokespersons pay a hefty price for giving an “on background” interview that ended up naming the source in print.

But if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I don’t like easily dispensed platitudes. Media relations isn’t always so black and white, and there may indeed be times when speaking to reporters on background makes sense.

So here’s my question for you, and I’d really like your help with this one: When is it appropriate to speak to reporters on background? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Just so we’re all speaking the same language, you’ll find my definitions to four of the most commonly used journalism terms below (keeping in mind, of course, that different journalists interpret these terms differently):

Off-the-record: Strictly speaking, off-the-record means that the information you share with a reporter cannot be used in any way; rather, it is used solely to help the journalist have a more complete understanding of a news story. But some reporters may use the information if they can get a different source to confirm it.

On Background: The information provided by a source can be used, but the source cannot be named or quoted directly.

Not For Attribution: The information provided by a source may be used and the spokesperson may be quoted, but not by name. Instead, the quote will be attributed to an obscured source, such as a “Senior White House Official” or a “company director.” Sources can negotiate the manner in which they are described by the reporter.

On-The-Record: Unless you specify otherwise and gain the prior agreement of the reporter, assume that everything you say is on-the-record.