Intelligence

Reminder: Don’t do ‘off-the-record’ like this

Vested

Jacqueline Gogel

Vice President

Apple’s communications operation is notoriously efficient and effective, but the company made a slip-up last week that produced immediate consequences.

The mistake concerns the company’s reaction to a critical article in Mic, a media outlet that has a large Millennial following. An Apple PR representative, which reporter Melanie Ehrenkranz mercifully leaves unnamed, responded to the article with a lengthy, seemingly on-message email. Basic damage control — but with one issue.

The response email began with the caveat familiar to many issues-focused PR pros: “off the record.” Ehrenkranz explained in a subsequent post why this is problematic:

The Apple spokesperson began the email with the words “off the record,” a condition Mic did not agree to before the statement was delivered. Apple’s PR team should be advised that off-the-record statements are “prearranged agreements” whose conditions are decided on beforehand — a longstanding rule of ethical journalism. A source’s request to speak off the record must be approved by the reporter before the off-the-record information is shared.

Set aside for a moment whether or not the mistake merited a second, widely shared post that called attention to it. Two immediate thoughts come to mind.

The first is a reminder on tactics: Setting up an off-the-record discussion has a distinct formula that must be followed. PR pros need to get the journalist’s buy-in before revealing anything they’d like to keep off the record. This also applies to the derivatives of off-the-record arrangements: not-for-attribution quotes and information given on background only. Set the rules before spilling the beans.

The second thought concerns the broader media environment, particular for technology. There are two general constituencies of tech press: outlets that play by conventional journalism’s rules and outlets that believe their job is to cheerlead. Both kinds of outlets can produce quality, informative reporting on the industry. But playing fast and loose with the rules is still a substantial risk.

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