Veteran political strategist and political communications guru Rich Galen – who has spoken at a couple of our conferences in the past – is one of the savviest, most experienced operatives you’ll find in all of DC when it comes to dealing with the press.
And in light of the new “Fire and Fury” anti-Trump book, in which a number of individuals reportedly got “burned” by remarks made to the author which they apparently thought were “off the record,” Rich provided this week a little Press Relations 101 primer on the rules for interactions with members of the media.
If you ever expect to speak with a reporter about anything, you better read and take to heart Rich’s words, republished below.
Dr. Chuck Muth, PsD
Professor of Psephology (homeschooled)
by Rich Galen
This edition of Mullings is On-the-Record.
Unless you’ve been warming yourself walking around in shorts and flip-flops in Antarctica rather than bundled up and complaining about the cold in Our Nation’s Capital, you know that a new book has been released that contains some bad comments about Donald Trump.
I bought the book “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff. I sat right there on my iPad and ordered not one, but two copies – one that I can read on my Kindle app and another I can listen to in my car.
The principal bad commenter is Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist of the Trump campaign and, until John Kelly started getting his arms around West Wing operations, the White House.
Steve Bannon has been recanting his harsh words about both Donald Trumps: Senior and Junior. To my knowledge he has not denied what he is quoted as having said. He is saying that, in the words of NFL referees, “Upon Further Review …”
I don’t know Michael Wolff. But, I know a lot of other reporters and I spoke with some of them yesterday about the whole business of “off-the-record” and “on-background.”
When I first came to Washington, I understood the “off-the-record” rule to mean that a reporter not only couldn’t use my name, but he or she couldn’t use anything I said under that umbrella.
A conversation with former Baltimore Sun and NY Times reporter and editor, Adam Clymer confirmed my memory.
Nor, could they use what I said to tease the information out of someone else “I’ve been told X, do you have anything to add to that?”
Reporters were loathe to grant “off-the-record” status for anything I said in case someone else might later tell them the same thing ON the record.
Background is a different kettle of fish. Depending upon some quick negotiations, I might be identified as “someone with knowledge of Senator Qualyle’s or Speaker Gingrich’s (or whomever I was working for) thinking.”
Or, as “a person with authority to speak on behalf of …” or some variant of that theme.
The reporter could quote what I said, he or she couldn’t identify me by name. There are some reasons this makes sense. Often, it was when I was explaining a view held by someone that was contrary to my boss’ position. I didn’t want to get into a he-said-she-said spat, but wanted the reporter to know what I knew.
In any event, I had to ask for something to be “off-the-record” or, for that matter “on-background” in advance of saying whatever I was going to say and a verbal “ok” had to be granted by the reporter.
Back when I was a regular source, I would begin every conversation with a reporter – even reporters I had worked with for years – with this question: “What basis are we on?” Better to get the rules down so there were no hard feelings later.
I would sometimes – with reporters I knew and trusted – slide between on-the-record and on-background (again, asking in advance: Can we go on background for this next bit?). It was not unusual for the reporter to call back later to make sure items that quoted me by name were in the on-the-record portion of the discussion.
Nevertheless, in every lecture I have ever done to help train political press people I have issued this warning:
“No matter what the agreement is, if it’s good enough, the reporter is going to use it.”
I don’t know what ground rules (if any) existed between Michael Wolff and the people he cites in “Fire and Fury.” My suspicion is that the sources in many cases thought they were just chatting with Wolff.
Another Galen rule for press secretaries: Don’t chat with reporters. Or, don’t chat with reporters unless you have a good reason to make the reporter think you’ve stepped out of your professional role.
This is especially important to remember after a long day of campaigning, after a heavy meal of In-and-Out Burgers and a couple of beers in Mason City, Iowa or some similar venue.
Unless you have a firm agreement that everything from that point is off-the-record, everything from that point is on-the-record.
When asked if he interviewed Donald Trump, Sr. for his book, Wolff said that he had spoken to him for about three hours, but it was not clear that Trump knew he was being interviewed.
Maybe this edition of Mullings should be on background.