When It’s Okay To Go “On Background” With A Reporter

If you’ve ever attended a media training workshop, your trainer has probably advised you never to say anything to a reporter that you wouldn’t be comfortable seeing in print. But is that advice over-simplified, reducing media relationships to uncomplicated, black and white interactions?

I recently asked readers to weigh in on this question: When is it appropriate to go “on background” with the media? You had some great comments that make clear that going on background with reporters has an important place in media relations.

First, it’s worth defining the term. “On background” usually means that a reporter can use the information you give them, but cannot name or quote you directly. That’s different than “off-the-record,” which theoretically means that the information you share with a reporter cannot be used in any way.

Top SecretHere’s an example of when you might go on background with a reporter. Say you represent one of ten advocacy organizations that are working closely with a politician on a certain bill. You’re afraid that the politician is slowly backing away from their promise to pursue the legislation, but can’t publicly call him out without risking your relationship.

By speaking to a reporter on background, you might be able to get a media story that helps to put public pressure on the politician without compromising your personal relationship with him (with ten coalition partners, it would be tough to know who spoke to the press).
Here’s what you had to say about when to go on background:

Keith Plunkett wrote: “In the end, the answer to this question of going “on background” all comes down to trust. It’s a simple answer. It’s working through the relationships to know who you can and can’t trust that’s difficult.”

Mary Denihan said: “Keith is right about trust. Am also in a smaller market and it does make it easier to know who to trust. If you do not trust your gut with a reporter, listen to your gut.”

Patricia Smith wrote: “Going on background may be a useful way to provide a reporter with information that helps the reporter to construct a broader view of an issue, particularly when another party is publicly offering a narrow and/or slanted view of an issue.”

DoubleA said: “There always is risk associated with this tactic. (About two years ago, a reporter quoted me on the record from a conversation we had off the record. When I asked her why she quoted me, she acknowledged that we agreed to be off the record, but said that when I was still speaking to her 10 minutes later she didn’t realize we were still off the record, so she quoted me.)

Ted Flitton wrote: “Both off the record and background are challenging, and can be disastrous if something goes wrong. You must have a very defensible argument about why you employed the strategy you did as you may get into trouble with your executive team. The strategic need for this should be very clear and you must illustrate that proceeding as usual would have really cost your agency…You need to have a very good relationship with the reporter(s) and a sense of trust already built up.”

Leslie Gottlieb said: “I think relationship with the reporter is key. I will go “on background” and occasionally “not for attribution.” It depends on the sensitivity of the topic to my company/organization and the relationship I have with the reporter.”

John Nemo wrote: “Very simple – it all depends upon your relationship with the reporter and if you trust him/her and vice-versa. Relationships are key. Reporters hate being lied to and sources hate being “outed” or burned.”

I’m particularly struck that a majority of commenters mentioned the words “trust,” “relationship,” or both.

Those two words are as good as any to help determine whether it’s safe to go on background with a reporter. Still, it’s worth mentioning that a few commenters also rightly mentioned the words “risk” or “disaster.”

Here are five rules of the road for going on background:

  1. Consult with a communications professional – either in your own company, organization, or agency – or with an external firm, preferably one with crisis communications experience. You may be unaware of the landmines that exist in your specific case.
  2. Consider your relationship with the reporter. Journalists you know well and who have treated you fairly for several years are generally safer risks than reporters you are working with for the first time.
  3. Ask reporters to define exactly what on background means to them, preferably in writing.
  4. Make any agreements with a reporter in advance of the interview. You can’t say something interesting and then suddenly declare it on background.
  5. Keep in mind that even if you do the four things above, you may end up being named as the source. Even if you’re not, it may be obvious to the audience who the source was. If you’re not willing to take that risk, don’t go on background.