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A Media Relations Lesson from Baseball: What is on-the-record?

This week, a minor controversy erupted here in Philadelphia when comments made by Atlanta Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia disparaging Bryce Harper made their way out of the clubhouse and into the media.

Orlando Arcia and the Braves claimed that the comments were off the record and the reporters should have respected the sanctity of the clubhouse. Still, reporters were within their rights to report what people said in the clubhouse.

The dust-up made it clear that many people - including players and members of the media - need help understanding a key tenant of media relations: the definitions and guidelines of on-the-record comments versus off-the-record comments.

What are the differences between "on the record," "off the record," "background," and "deep background," and how can you help members of your organization navigate the differences?

On the Record

Definition: When a statement or comment is "on the record," the information provided is attributed to the source and can be quoted directly in a news article or broadcast. An "on the record" conversation is the most common form of communication with the media whether it is a press release, TV interview, podcast, or print interview.

Use Case: "On the record" comments are typically used for official statements, interviews, and any information you are comfortable sharing publicly and being directly associated with as the source.

Off the Record

Definition: When a comment is shared "off the record," it signifies that the information is provided with the understanding that it cannot be quoted or attributed to the source in any way. It's essentially a confidential disclosure.

Use Case: "Off the record" comments are typically used to share sensitive information with a journalist without it being tied to the source. It's often employed to provide background or context that can inform the journalist's understanding but cannot be reported.


Definition: "Background" comments are shared with the understanding that the information can be attributed to a general description of the source (e.g., a "source close to the matter"). The journalist can reference the comment without directly quoting the source.

Use Case: "Background" comments are valuable when you want to provide information but maintain anonymity. It allows you to guide the narrative while keeping your specific identity confidential.

Deep Background

Definition: "Deep background" comments are the most discreet form of communication. Here, the journalist receives information but cannot attribute it to any source, not even a general description. The journalist must independently corroborate and verify the information through other sources.

Use Case: "Deep background" is used when discretion is required, often in highly sensitive situations. Journalists are expected to rely on the information provided as a starting point for their research and reporting without revealing the original source.

Public relations officials need to ensure their principals and clients understand media guidelines before they are put in a situation that requires interaction with the media.

Fitler Square Strategies has media-trained top officials, including governors and members of Congress, and we've also worked with first-time advocates to ensure they were prepared and comfortable when interacting with the media.


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