Every communicator on earth knows the value of the phrase, “No comment.” When we do media training, we coach everyone that the value of “no comment” is pretty much nill—and so is trying to have a conversation off the record. You can always assume that what you say will end up being reported, no matter what was agreed to during the conversation.
When we were kids, my dad always told us we should never, ever put into writing anything we didn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper. That’s the same philosophy I take to media relations—everything you say or write can, and will, end up in print.
That’s why I’m always surprised when a communicator is upset that something they gave on background is attributed to them. Or, as we discussed a few weeks ago when a reporter won’t run a story if the communicator won’t approve of being named as a spokesperson.
It’s a tricky balance we all try to keep—in some cases, there is some information we should be able to give on background if only to provide extra context, but it doesn’t add value to the story so shouldn’t need to be printed, let alone attributed. I also understand that journalists have to be able to name their sources, both in the name of ethics and in reporting on the news without bias.
Why “On Background” Doesn’t Work
There is a difference between providing information on background, such as a private company’s finances or the number of employees that shouldn’t be publicly disclosed, but can provide context and credibility for a reporter working on a story.
And then there is what sounds like is happening in Silicon Valley: launching a new product but not allowing the leadership team to be quoted during the public news conference. Or full-out lying by trying to claim the information was on background when, in fact, it was not true.
I can understand tech publications being fed up with our industry. I’m disgusted and I’ve read only 15 or 20 examples. I don’t live it every day.
This is why you can’t really blame The Verge for their recent policy update on gaining background information from communicators.
The TL;DR version is they’re no longer going to allow it. If you talk to someone on their team, send them an email, or text them, you can assume that whatever you say will be attributed to you.
Here is what they have to say:
“Today, The Verge is updating our public ethics policy to be clearer in our interactions with public relations and corporate communications professionals. We’re doing this because big tech companies, in particular, have hired a dizzying array of communications staff who routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect accountability, pass the burden of truth to the media, and generally control the narratives around the companies they work for while being annoying as hell to deal with.”
We probably could have done without the snarky “being annoying as hell to deal with” comment, but the rest of it makes sense.
They go on to say:
“The main way this happens is that big companies take advantage of a particular agreement in the media called “background.” Being “on background” means that they tell things to reporters, but those reporters agree to not specifically attribute that information to a person by name.”
There have been plenty of times my team and I have offered information to reporters on background. Oftentimes, when a private company has raised money, you might tell the reporter how much revenue the company made in the previous quarter or year. This isn’t information you’d want in the story—and you certainly wouldn’t want it attributed to the CEO, but if it was included, it could be without attribution. It’s a fact so it doesn’t have to be sourced. But the main reason you’d provide that information is to give them context to the amount of money raised.
We Shouldn’t Use It to Conceal Info
The rest of the reasoning The Verge gives for changing their policy on having conversations with communicators “on background” is understandable.
They say, “Oftentimes, companies will make things significantly worse and also insist that background information be paraphrased, further obscuring both specific details and the source of those details.”
There are many reasons a reporter might agree to learn information on background, but being on background is supposed to be an agreement. And it sounds like, in their experience, many communicators violate that agreement, which violates trust.
Here is the rest of their statement:
“The clear pattern is that tech companies have uniformly adopted a strategy of concealing information behind background. It’s also easy to see why companies like to abuse background: they can provide their point of view to the media without being accountable for it. Instead, journalists have to act like they magically know things, and readers have to guess who is trustworthy and who is not.”
This kind of behavior—and reporting (they’re not innocent in all of this)—is what leads to the mistrust of media.
Aligning on Media Relations Values
They’ve decided two things:
- Anyone speaking to The Verge will be “on the record.”
- They will still honor some requests to be on background, but it will be at their discretion and only for specific reasons they can articulate to readers.
I don’t believe this changes much of anything for most of us. If you’re a member of PRSA, you’ve committed to a Code of Ethics and, as part of that, you have agreed to conduct yourself in the utmost professional manner. This means treating your journalist relationships as sacred, as far as I’m concerned.
But I also understand there are business leaders who insist you handle those relationships in a certain way—and are completely fine with your pushing them to the brink (even if you don’t believe you should).
I spend a lot of time talking with business leaders about leading with values and, as part of that, I’ve decided that 2022 is the year of no toxicity. That means the clients who abuse us are going to be fired.
The clients we don’t agree with and don’t have the same values will be looking for a new digital comms firm. And, though we don’t have a client right now who wants us to push our reporter relationships to the brink, it’s become one of the “red flag” questions we ask in new business meetings.
If they don’t agree that everything is on the record, with or without an agreement, they’re not a fit for us.
Get Rid of the Toxic Requests
The Great Resignation is here, which means, if you don’t like the way you are being asked to do your job, go find another company or client who respects your process and has your values.
For the rest of you, stand your ground. If you’re asked to provide information on background, explain why that’s not good for anyone—and that The Verge has created a new way of doing things. I’m positive all of the other tech publications, and then the business pubs, will follow suit.
Nothing is ever off the record. Background information will and should be, attributed to a source. If you are talking to a journalist in your official company capacity, you should be quoted.
This is a new world. One where we need to be able to trust the media. And it’s up to us to support that mission.