Public relations professionals know the ins and outs of editorial guidelines with “on background” policies and the unspoken honor system that typically goes hand-in-hand with these types of conversations. Lately, however, various news outlets have started resetting their editorial guidelines and no longer accept on background materials, with WIRED stating:
“Anyone talking to WIRED reporters in any official capacity does so on the record by default. This means that what you say or write can be quoted and attributed to you by name, not just as ‘a company spokesperson.’ We typically allow anonymity only to sources who could face retaliation or be endangered by the information they provide, and when we do so we explain our reasons to readers. As Julia Angwin, editor in chief of the Markup, has noted, ‘Corporate spokespeople who are paid to provide information simply don’t meet the criteria for being granted anonymity.’”
Meanwhile, The Verge had this to say:
“We’re [updating our public ethics policy] 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.”
Yikes – it looks like we may have forgotten what we learned during our formative years in the communications field.
So why the sudden influx of media outlets revising their editorial guidelines? Put simply, clarity and trust. Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer report revealed “a vicious cycle of distrust fueled by government and media,” with 67% of respondents believing they are being lied to by reporters, while 46% view the media as a “divisive force in society.” The most trusted news source? 61% of respondents claimed businesses are the only institution they still look to for accurate, truthful news.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I have to agree with the journalists here. While it can be frustrating for PR professionals looking to secure early coverage for their latest product announcement, we must remember that sharing news with journalists on background is an agreement between both parties, decided on only after the journalist has accepted the terms. Sharing confidential information with reporters puts the onus on them to keep your “secret.” Take New York Times reporter Judith Miller for instance – in 2005 she was held in contempt of court and subsequentially arrested for refusing to give up her source in a CIA case.
On background can also come back to bite PR pros in the butt. Last summer Apple planned to release new software aimed at fighting child pornography by scanning and hashing photos stored on iPhones and comparing them to hashed CSAM (child sexual abuse material) online, then reporting devices with too many “questionable” images to Apple servers. This kind of scanning system can leave users vulnerable; the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released a statement lampooning the software, deeming it “a thoroughly documented, carefully thought out and narrowly scoped backdoor.” Not surprisingly, Apple delayed the launch and attempted placing the blame on its public relations team.
Despite trying to offload their problem elsewhere, the company was hit with backlash. The Apple PR team went into crisis mode and reached out to the media for correction, but only on background, as they refused to provide attribution. One of those media outlets was unimpressed; a Washington Post reporter is quoted as saying:
“Apple spokesperson Fred Sainz said he would not provide a statement on [the] announcement because The Washington Post would not agree to use it without naming the spokesperson.”
Bad news for Apple, who essentially said “no comment,” a well-known phrase many people often equate with guilt.
When it comes to on background discussions, always make sure the reporter knows who the source is as well as any guidelines they must follow, such as embargo times. Adding to that, it’s important to not share anything with a journalist you wouldn’t want to see published. With the current state of the media, you never know when things can be leaked. Your best bet is to play it safe and keep sensitive information out of the conversation altogether.
Oh, and by the way, you can quote me on this – it’s not on background.