One of the four cornernstone principles of Communciation-Based Leadership is that it’s not possible to lead without communicating. That principle is drawn from the broader truth that it is not possible to not communicate. (Here we’d like to give a tip o’ the hat to Watzlawick, Bavelas, and Jackson for “Pragmatics of Human Communication,” in which they did the vital academic work of turning something many people think into something we actually know!)
Especially today, when communication technology is fast, everywhere, and on the move, everything we do communicates something to somebody somewhere. So if you don’t want what you say or do repeated or attributed to you, don’t write or say it.
Remember: you are always on the record!
That said, if you assess an issue and absolutely need to say something about it, don’t want it attributed to you directly, but your need to say it overrides the risk of being quoted, you have the option of using general attribution or The Chatham House Rule to go on background. That means you and those with whom you are communicating have agreed the things you say can be repeated, but not attributed directly to you by name or position/title.
Before you go on background, be sure you trust the people with whom you’ll share your thoughts.
Sometimes though, you may need to say things you don’t want repeated at all. Sometimes you may need to say things you do not want attributed to you in any way. Sometimes you may choose to go off the record.
Going off the record is risky business in a world where even the most private comments are just a smartphone recording or screenshot away from going public, so our advice is: don’t.
But if you’re going to risk it, here is what you need to know.
No Attribution (Off the Record or Deep Background)
Going off the record not only means that what you say should not be attributed to you, even indirectly, but that what you say shouldn’t be repeated or referenced at all.
Off the record, also sometimes called deep background, is high risk and typically used by one of two types of people. The first is those in senior positions of authority or responsibility who want to steer someone clear of inaccurate reporting or prevent a security or privacy violation of some sort. Most often going off the record in that case includes an agreement to follow up on the record at a later time.
One example of when this might be appropriate is when discussing the status of an ongoing police investigation. Trusted reporters might be filled in on details that, if made public, would derail the investigation or help the suspect avoid capture. Yet police spokespersons may need to provide a reporter with those details to prevent publication of a story that inaccurately says the police aren’t taking appropriate action. In such a case it’s the timeliness of release of information that is the problem, and a reasonable case can be made for holding off on making it public.
The second type of person who goes off the record is generally someone who knows they don’t have the authority or permission to say the things they plan to say. This may be a whistleblower with a legitimate reason to speak up, but who fears reprisal — or it can be someone who is working at cross-purposes with their organization. (How to respond when someone inside an organization has gone off the record unofficially will be the subject of a future Hard NoCs post.)
If you choose to go off the record, it is best to do it with an individual or very small and select group. The bigger the group, the greater the chances someone with either misunderstand the ground rules or will deliberately violate them because there are enough people in the group to make it difficult to figure out who did it.
As with general attribution, if you choose to go off the record, make sure you have a solid trust relationship established with those with whom you are speaking. Remember, if someone violates an off the record agreement, it’s you who will be on the line.
Final Thoughts on Attribution Categories
In this series of Hard NoCs posts, we’ve described three types of attribution: direct attribution or on the record, which means you’ll be quoted by name and title; indirect attribution, on background, or the Chatham House Rule, which means what you say can be repeated, but you won’t be quoted diectly by name or position; and off the record, which means what you say shouldn’t be repeated in any forum whatsoever.
Your default setting should be on the record. That’s the best way to ensure you are quoted correctly, and that if you aren’t you can correct the record by pointing to the original source discussion.
Regardless of which type of attribution you choose however, be sure everyone involved understands which category you are using, that everyone involved knows exactly what it means, and that you trust them.
Finally, don’t dance between attribution categories during a particular engagement. If you do, you invite confusion and failure. If you start off the record and want to switch to general or full attribution, it’s best to pause the engagement, take a break, and start over under the new attribution rules. It is just too easy to muddy the waters and end up seeing something in the public you didn’t mean to put there.
Remember though, even if you go on background or off the record – you are still always on the record. Anything you say or do has the potential to end up in the form of a photo, video, audio recording, or even a screenshot.
As a general rule, don’t say or do anything you aren’t ready to own if you see it on the front page of a major newspaper or it pops up as a meme in your Twitter feed.
If you have any questions about attribution categories or other aspects of preparing for public engagement of any kind, whether as an official spokesperson for your organization giving a keynote speech or media interview, or via personal social media platforms, feel free to reach out to the coaching and consulting team at North of Center. We’ll help you make communication the centerpiece of your leadership style to assure your crediblity and preserve the public’s trust in you and your organization.