To many experienced communicators, these 'PR myths' (well, more misunderstandings maybe) probably seem very basic. But I'm often asked these questions, so I guess there is value in just knocking them off, one by one. Here's another frequent query... it cropped up again just yesterday:
"But I said it was off the record! Why have they landed me right in it? And what do you have to say to stop a journalist writing anything?"
'Off the record' must be three of the worst heart-sinking words a journalist ever hears. It's supposed to mean that nothing they are told can then be reported. It's an attempted gagging order that aims to stop a journalist doing their job.
Talking to people on our media training sessions, it's clear that their experience of 'off the record' is just as disastrous. It's not like on the telly. Too often, it's a plea blurted out at the end of a unguarded rant or indiscretion, in the hope that the fast-regretted words will somehow vanish from the journalist's memory and notepad. We all have those 'Oops' moments. But claiming 'off the record' at that point is a waste of time and usually never works.
In fact, it's very rare that 'off the record' ever needs to be used.
If you have important but sensitive background information that a journalist probably should know but that cannot appear in print upon pain of (your) death, there may sometimes be scope to agree a confidential briefing with the journalist if they are someone you already know and trust. You will obviously need their promise to respect that confidentiality before you start spilling the beans...
But if something is so sensitive that it cannot be discussed openly, then it's probably best not to say anything at all. Discretion is the better part of valour and all that.
Your best bet is to find out what the journalist needs to know (and what they know already), and decide on how you want to respond without resorting to the awful "No comment". If you really, really can't comment on something right now, explain that truthfully, find out what you can say as an acceptable holding statement and/or agree a date/time when you can talk more openly.