As a public relations and communications consulting firm that works hard to get our expert clients quoted by name in the press, we don’t necessarily recommend speaking to reporters when that’s not the goal. We understand, however that for all sorts of reasons—rapport building, competitive intelligence gathering, the laudable impulse to help a journalist understand a complex technical issue, or the desire to inject some needed skepticism into their account of a new market development—you may decide to speak to a reporter on some sort of anonymous basis. Here are some tips to reduce the chances of getting burned:

  1. Build the relationship first. Take time to meet with key reporters in your space—they’ll be extra careful if they have looked you in the eye.
  2. Start small. On first go-round with a reporter, consider providing some bland market commentary you would have been happy to have been quoted on just to see if they handle the attribution the way they said they would.
  3. Set ground rules at the outset. The minute you stop talking about the weather and start talking business with a reporter, establish the basis of your conversation. That goes for subsequent conversations too; the attribution you agreed on last time you spoke isn’t necessarily in effect today.
  4. Know the lingo. The AP uses these definitions for different varieties of anonymity:
    • “Off the record” means the info cannot be used for publication. Why would you ever do this? Say a senior member of your team is taking leave to battle cancer. A reporter calls who heard—and is about to report—that the individual in question was fired for underperformance. Sharing the context of the departure in an off-the-record conversation might save everyone a good deal of embarrassment.
    • “Background” means the information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source.
    • “Deep background” means the information can be used, but may not be attributed in any form.
  5. Forget the lingo. Unfortunately, the above terms can mean different things to different people. It’s better to avoid them and be explicit about how you want your comments to be attributed. E.g.: “You can attribute my comments to ‘a company official.’” Or “Call me ‘an executive at a firm not involved in the transaction who reviewed the term sheet.’”
  6. Keep it simple. You may wish for some of your comments to be attributed to you (or your firm) and some not. But jumping back and forth between on the record and background is prone to error. Better to stipulate that the entire conversation is subject to the strictest anonymity you agreed to, but that you are willing to verbally review what was said afterward—including having the reporter read back direct quotes to you from their notes—and in that process, may agree to allow specific comments to be attributed.

Reporters generally don’t want to burn their sources because they want to go back to them time and again. But mistakes and miscommunications happen, and the consequences can be catastrophic for your business and reputation. Would-be Deep Throats need to make sure they’re prepared before picking up that phone.