On background policies are at the forefront of recently updated and reset editorial guidelines of several major media outlets. For communicators, this reminds us that understanding and committing to the rules of engagement must be among our highest priorities.
Over the past several months, we’ve seen the following:
- "Anyone talking to WIRED reporters in any official capacity does so on the record by default." (Wired)
- "You cannot email reporters statements prefaced with on background and assume we will treat the material as if it is on background." (The Verge)
- “On background, no attribution isn’t real, no matter how many times PR pros say it." (Quartz)
“On background, no attribution” isn’t real, no matter how many times PR folks say it. Like @TheVerge, we won’t talk to paid corporate spokespeople on this basis. PR folks are either on the record or off (unless speaking in a different capacity—as a whistleblower, for instance).
— Heather Landy (@HeatherLandy) December 3, 2021
In addition, these calls-to-action go beyond mainstream publications. They encompass a broad scope of societal organizations.
For example, the newly published “Guidelines on the Provision of Information to the News Media,” from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, says that “as a matter of routine” media interviews should be on the record.
Recent statements are clear that on background and off the record continue, but not unless there is firm agreement among all parties, ahead of the conversation, never after the fact.
These collective guidelines are, of course, not new. We are taught these protocols as students or early in our careers, and know them to be true. On occasion, procedures or policies are unclear, and the pressure of deadlines can lead to misunderstandings, confusion and inadvertent missteps. Those should be exceptions, not accepted behavior.
Why, then, is this series of policy clarifications coming now?
A defining reason is that across the world trust in media is down. Moreover, the spread of misinformation is up. A recent Gallup poll found that just 7 percent of U.S. adults have “a great deal” and 29 percent have “a fair amount” of trust in newspapers, television and radio news reporting.
Edelman’s new 2022 Trust Barometer found that 67 percent of its 36,000 respondents in 28 countries believe journalists are lying. And nearly one in every two respondents see media as a divisive force in society.
Just the Facts
In the face of these telling statistics, it’s understandable that media outlets want to double down on the urgency of accuracy, transparency and accountability in their day-to-day reporting. As such, it’s our job to ensure that the information we deliver to media is the same: accurate, transparent and accountable.
Late last year The Verge updated its background policy.
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.
Some examples The Verge cites for its policy change are equally ouch-worthy:
"More than one big company insists on holding product briefings “on background with no attribution,” which means no one can properly report what company executives say about their own new products during marketing events.
A big tech company PR person emailed us a link to the company’s own website “on background.”
A food delivery company insisted on discussing the popularity of chicken wings on background.
Multiple big tech companies insist on having PR staffers quoted as “sources familiar with the situation” even though they are paid spokespeople for the most powerful companies in the world."
While The Verge's statement specifically (and subjectively) targets big tech companies, the need for professional and respectful collaboration is key in all communication transactions. The exchange between communicators and media must be a two-way street.
As a continued practice, we must be mindful that the reputations of our organizations and our professions are on the line with every interview, conversation and briefing we have with media of all types.
And all of this, of course, is definitely not on background.
Dr. Felicia Blow, APR, is the 2022 PRSA chair