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We often enjoy the Lunch with the FT feature in the Financial Times Weekend Edition and was Saturday’s was particularly entertaining.  Edward Luce, the paper’s Washington commentator was lunching with Anthony Scaramucci, aka “The Mooch,” Donald Trump’s former communications director.

It was bound to be a lively affair – especially since it took place in a restaurant owned by “The Mooch,” himself.  The main headline from this encounter was Scaramucci’s description of his erstwhile colleague Steve Bannon as “a racist,” a man with “a screw loose.” Great story – punchy, controversial and continuing the theme that the Trump White House is peopled by loud mouthed eccentrics who fight like rats in a sack.

However, there was another aspect of the interview that interested me as a journalist and media trainer.  “Scaramucci has a light-hearted politically incorrect exchange about the fact that his partner is Jewish and he is Italian, which he requests be off the record,” reports Luce.  I have to say – I was quite shocked.

What does off the record mean?

“What does off the record mean?” is something that we’re frequently asked in our media training courses. I had this very same conversation last week with a group from a big law firm.  I explained to them, as I always do, what it means to me.  Interestingly Edward Luce, my colleague on the Financial Times (I’m a freelance) whose pieces I always read and whose new book I really enjoyed, takes a different view to mine.  I would never quote something from someone if they asked it to be “off the record.”

The FT piece also includes a reference to an interview that Scaramucci did with a writer on The New Yorker magazine in which he was very rude and sweary about the President.  “I incorrectly thought my family’s tie to him [the writer, Ryan Lizza] and the Italian-American community would mean our conversation was off the record. I make a mistake, which cost me my job,” says Scaramucci. 

How do journalists use off the record information?

The other week one of our journalist/media trainers (we only use working journalists) was writing a finance story and needed to get some information from one of the main financial regulators. A press officer who our trainer knows well was reluctant to do a formal interview and be quoted because they didn’t want to make a big story of this issue. So, instead, the two agreed that they would speak off the record and our journalist would attribute to what they said as “a source at” at this particular financial regulator.

Before that piece, our journalist/media trainer had done a story about a takeover deal.  In this case, one of the parties involved wanted to me to know something that, they felt would improve the reporting of the discussions between the two parties.  It was agreed that this would be “on background.” Again, the journalist didn’t quote them, they simply stated the point they made as fact.

The Financial Times regularly uses the phrase “people close to the deal said that…” before quoting an off-the-record comment.  You’ll probably also read phrases such as “one insider,” “friends of” or “one commentator.”  Very often the description will be agreed between the interviewee and the journalist.

Actually, we did I just say that journalists would never quote something from someone if they asked it to be “off the record”?  OK, we lied. Well, slightly anyway. The truth is that if the story is big enough almost every journalist will “burn,” their sources, in other words, they will not respect the off the record arrangement.

Should you go off the record when speaking to a journalist?

So, when we’re doing media training courses, we always explain that press officers and communications people might have journalists with whom they work closely and are therefore willing to speak off record. For anybody else, it’s always better to assume that everything you say to the journalist can be quoted and attributed to you. That includes that little throwaway line as the camera operator is “de-rigging” or that bit of small talk with the reporter as you walk to the reception desk together.

“Off the record” has its advantages as we tell people in our media coaching courses but it should be used with extreme caution – as “The Mooch” can testify.


The Economist this week has some interesting thoughts on how crises affect companies.  It has analysed eight of the most prominent calamities to affect major companies since 2010. 

It confirms something that we, as crisis communications consultants with more than 20 years’ experience under our belts, are very much aware of when it comes to crises. 

“The evidence shows that these episodes were deeply injurious to the companies’ financial health, with the median firm losing 30 per cent of its value since its crisis, when compared with a basket of its peers,” says the Schumpeter column, adding presciently, “Facebook should beware.” 

Business leaders and crisis communications

The piece goes on to point out that the leaders of many crisis-struck organisations are all too often “myopic,” and regard a crisis as “a public-relations blip that will not alter a firm’s operations or its competitive position.”  The eight companies that the Economist looks at have lost a total value of some $300billion. 

This is due in part to fines but as the paper points out, “a big scandal distracts management, leads to other kinds of painful regulatory scrutiny and, if a firm has a stretched balance-sheet, forces it to shrink.”  Although the Economist piece doesn’t mention United Airlines, it’s worth remembering that almost exactly a year ago, the airline suffered appalling publicity following the forced ejection of a passenger, which was mishandled in communications terms.  Shortly after the event United’s shares fell 6.3 per cent in pre-market trading, slashing $1.4billion off its market cap of $21billion.

All the more reason then, for companies – and other, non-commercial organisations – to have their crisis communications strategies all ready to roll at a moment’s notice.  These days the risks facing all organisations are greater than ever. 

More crisis communications for companies

Software hacking and data breaches are increasingly common and are potentially disastrous.  Staff are more likely than ever to whistle blow and although the scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign have been pushed down the media agenda over the last few months allegations of sexual impropriety are still apt to make the headlines.  Add to this the power of more vocal customers, and the power of social media and the risks are many and multi-faceted. 

We’ve seen a noticeable uptick in clients, old and new, coming to us for crisis communications training.  Many have a crisis communication strategy in place, but they simply want to test it with the help of working journalists and update it.  As we say, there’s no point in having such a strategy gathering dust in a drawer or in a file somewhere on someone’s computer.

Being proactive is also important. Volkswagen, the Economist points out, managed to mitigate the impact of the emissions scandal by implementing an efficiency drive and promoting new models.  But it goes on to note that like the other three public companies that feature in its survey it’s now valued on low profit multiples compared to its peers. 

Volkswagen – in the crisis management slow lane?

If Volkswagen had acted as soon as its management had realised that there was something wrong with its public pronouncements on emissions rather than allowing the story to emerge and then struggling to control it afterwards, it could have been in a much stronger position today.

The Schumpeter piece concludes by pointing out that although Facebook is sitting on a huge cash pile of some $42billion and has therefore not come anywhere near a financial catastrophe “it’s weakness is a management team that seems keen to downplay the severity of what has happened.  Recent experience suggests that is a mistake.”

Since the article’s publication Mark Zuckerberg has been very much on front foot, making statements and doing interviews.  The problem is that this looks like a panicked reaction to the criticism of the company and the statements by large advertisers such as Unilever, whose CEO has talked about the “murky” world of digital advertising.

Crisis communications – respond, don’t just react

As we say in our crisis communications training courses, you need to respond to events not simply to react to them.  In other words, in a crisis, an organisation should follow its crisis plan so that it’s ready to handle problems, threats and criticism in a coherent, strategic way that shows that its management team is in control. 

If you’re just reacting, it means that you’re letting others, be they the media, regulators or consumers set the agenda and you’re simply running around firefighting.  And that can affect your brand, your market share and, ultimately the value of your company.  Facebook take note.