Media Terminology: The Language of Journalists

Furia Rubel Communications, Inc.
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When conducting public relations, there is a great deal of lingo shared among journalists and public relations experts. Here is what you need to know about media terminology.

On the record:

“On the record” or “for the record” mean that what you say is fair game and may be included in the story with attribution to you. Therefore, your comments should be accurate, concise, and memorable. They are statements that you want the media to repeat.

“Any time you’re talking to a reporter, you should assume that what you’re saying is on the record until it’s agreed by both parties that it’s not,” said Gina Passarella, the editor in chief of ALM Global, LLC.

On Record PR Podcast: How Best to Work with Legal Media with Gina Passarella, Editor in Chief at ALM

Off the record:

Off-the-record comments should be avoided. My preference is that corporate representatives never make off-the-record comments because nothing is off the record. If you say it, then there is always a chance that it will end up published. “Off the record” means your name will not be attached to it (if the reporter agrees to this). If you do not want it researched or repeated, do not share it.

“If you say to a reporter as you’re talking, ‘Oh, this part I’m going to have off the record,’ and you don’t hear them say, ‘OK, we’re off the record,’ that’s not an agreement,” ALM’s Passarella said. “You need to stop before you continue talking with what you want to say off the record, and make sure that the reporter agrees, and then be clear about when you’re going back on the record.”

Embargo:

An embargo usually entails providing an advance copy of an important press release or other information to the media with the explicit understanding that they will not release the story to the public until a specified date and time. When done right you maintain control of when the story breaks, and you give the media enough time to conduct research, gather quotes, and cover the story. If you offer an embargoed story to a sole reporter, never give that story to another reporter without the permission from the other. In addition, just because you offered it does not mean the reporter accepted the embargo. An embargo is an agreement between two parties.

Do not simply send a press release or email that says “Embargoed” at the top and expect the media to honor it. They have no duty to do so, and often they will not honor an embargo unless it is an explicit agreement with appropriate language to that effect.

You always risk a leak because there are no guarantees. A hungry member of the media could break an embargo without repercussion, or someone could have leaked the story. Know what you are dealing with and with whom.

Offering content under embargo does not mean you will retain control over the story. About embargoes, “I’ll be honest, they’re not a reporter’s favorite,” Passarella said.

Sometimes it does make things easier, but it can’t stop us from being completely ethical and responsible in our coverage. Meaning, we can’t not call the other side, and sometimes folks try to use the embargo to limit how much of the story we can report. We can’t stop reporting the full story. We can work with you on timing.

Exclusive:

An “exclusive” is when you give a particular media outlet the opportunity to be the only outlet to get the interview. Many journalists insist on exclusives.

Second-day story:

A second-day story should turn hard news into a multifaceted story that blends the issues with human interest. It is an update with added information on a story that was previously told. A second-day story fills gaps in the original story, provides another angle, and shares expert opinion, data, or other new information.

For attribution:

“For attribution” is like speaking on the record. The information the source provides is to be quoted and attributed to the person making the statement. The statement is usually followed by, “You can quote me on that.”

Not for attribution:

The exact opposite of for attribution, “not for attribution” is when you provide the media with information that can be quoted or used, but that same information cannot be attributed to the source. Here the information or statement should be preceded by, “You cannot quote me on this.” This can be a sticky way to present information to the media. If you do not want it attributed to you, then it is better left unsaid, like “off the record.” If you do not wish to provide certain information, you might consider earning some points with the reporter by suggesting an alternative source.

On background:

According to a colleague who is an undercover investigative reporter, “on background” means that this reporter will not identify the source and will use the information provided by the source. “On background” can also mean that the information will not be attributed or used. It depends on the source’s preference, which should be clarified between the source and the reporter.

On deep background:

When you say you are providing information to a reporter “on deep background,” it means that the information is not for the public, but the reporter can use it to enhance the story or get additional information from other sources. This is another example of a situation in which it is better not to put it out there if you do not want it published.

How to Decide on Terms

The general rule of thumb should be to believe that everything is on the record, fair game, quotable, available from someone else, attributable, and about the story (not you).

As a public relations professional, I advise clients to approach off-the-record or background conversations with care. Any degree of this type of interaction requires one vital element: trust between the journalist and the source.

When deciding whether to approach a journalist with an off-the-record or background tip, consider how well you know the reporter’s beat. Will the information be of value to the reporter and their readers? Is the information valuable to the public overall?

Consider, too, how well you know the reporter as an individual. Have you shared sensitive information with that person before? Were you able to agree on terms of a previous conversation, and did the reporter and the publication uphold those terms?

That type of trust only can be developed over time. It also can be subject to the whims of an editor with whom you do not have a relationship. A reporter may have agreed not to use a source’s name, but by the time the piece gets to the editors, they decide the agreement is not in the publication’s best interest. Either the piece gets killed or the reporter must go back to the source and renegotiate terms.

Bottom line: If you are at all uncertain about the terms of a conversation, do not say anything you would not want to see printed on the front page or home page.

Even if both parties agree to go off the record or on background, the impressions and feelings created in the mind of the journalist by that conversation are long-lasting and can shape future coverage.

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