Is Anything Off the Record?

Off The Record
A little while ago, I was quoted in a blog post following an e-mail exchange.

At first, I was a little surprised because the exchange wasn’t an interview or a Q&A. But then I realized that I was talking to a blogger, and the rules of engagement are different. In the blogosphere, pretty much everything is on the record.

Comments you make on blog posts, things you spit out on Twitter, and conversations you have at a conference all become part of the public record. It’s not very often that you hear someone say “By the way, this is off-the-blog”.

It makes for a fascinating environment because everything you say/write is public, even casual conversations over a coffee, is on the record. While most people don’t think about it, the reality is you need to be conscious and careful about what you what you/write and where you do it. Anyone with a blog is potentially a “reporter” looking for a juicy quote or tidbit they can use.

Of course, this on-the-record reality is just an offshoot of how the Web has made our lives public exhibits. Anyone doing anything on the Web has decided to some degree to give up their privacy to become part of the digital landscape.

The strange part is a lot of people don’t really get this digital deal. They don’t understand that every time you reveal something about yourself, you’re peeling back the onion in a very public way that never disappears.

In Canada, Michael Geist notes that several politicians in the current federal election have resigned due to controversial or embarrassing things said on blogs. Conservative candidate Chris Reid, for example, walked away after writing some bizarre things on his blog.

Geist puts it nicely that: “The digital generation posts everything from party photos to their thoughts on the issues of the day. This content has a “Hotel California” quality to it — you can post it anytime you like, but it never leaves.”

In a survey, found that 20% of employees look at Facebook and MySpace when looking to hire someone, while another 9% said they will start looking at social networking profiles in the future.

Another interesting angle is how your life can become a permanent part of the Web without you even knowing it.

Ivor Tossell, a reporter with the Globe & Mail, discovered this recently when some of his songs (ostensibly written for family and friends) ended up online after his wife downloaded Last.FM. Next time you see Ivor, ask him about his album Tweet, Tweet, Mon Amour?, a fictional album listed on his Last.FM profile.

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  • Steve

    Conservative candidate Chris Reid, for example, walked away after writing some bizarre things on his blog.

    Care to elucidate? I agreed with much that he said and thought it was in the realm of normal discourse.

  • Mark Evans

    Steve: “Bizarre” depends on your political sensibilities, which is to say they don’t exactly align with mine. Perhaps “bizarre” isn’t the right word but it seemed pretty good at 6 a.m. when I wrote this post.


  • Vava

    Well said Mark. Another concern will be when employers EXPECT you to have a Facebook or Myspace account. I remember seeing a lecture a couple of years ago at UofT by a prof from Texas who revealed that customs officials routinely look at people’s spending habits to determine their level of normality and trusworthiness. If you don’t have a credit card and work cash only then you will not show up on their radar and, as a result, may be denied access for being “different”.

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  • Louis Gray

    I’d say that people need to utilize best judgment, but it’s no surprise not everyone has it.

    If I engage in an e-mail conversation with a developer of a service I’ll be writing about and ask questions and get answers, I will sometimes excerpt those for a post and cite “said in an e-mail.” I also have quoted from comments on FriendFeed or Twitter, because those are public comments that are attributed.

    That said, I have e-mail conversations all the time with other bloggers which I trust will be “off the record”. It’s an issue of knowing who you are talking with, their goals, and whether they are trusted.

  • Tish Grier

    Much food for thought in your post, Mark….

    However, I think that asking someone to keep info “off the record,” expecting certain things to be kept off the record, and info that we put on social networking profiles or our own blogs to not bite us are different issues.

    If we are putting info on a social networking profile, that info is, technically, in the public domain. Therefore, we have to watch what we say about ourselves, if we are interested in cultivating a “personal brand” or even keeping our public persona on the up and up.

    Which is a good thing to do! In the U.S., there have been no test cases of potential employees suing employers over being denied employment because of their social networking profiles (see this post from my blog) but as you note, it’s happening with some regularity these days. We have to be our own judges of what’s off or on the record.

    However, when you’re talking with someone in casual conversation, you should have a sense whether or not you can trust that person. People who write personal blogs have different reasons for writing what someone tells them than someone who writes a more focused, business-related blog–so if you’re talking with a friend who’s a blogger, know what kind of blog they write, and whether or not you might be mentioned (and how you’re mentioned.) If it’s someone who’s writing as an citizen journalist, depending on the conversation, you might need to mention something is “off the record.” Whether it stays off the record, however, is another thing that few in the blogosphere can agree on. There’s no easy solution.

  • Gordon Haff

    I’d largely echo Louis. When I take a call/email from a journalist or someone else who is looking for comment about XYZ, it’s pretty clear that everything I say is on-the-record unless I explicitly state otherwise. On the other hand, if I’m having beers with that same person, I would not expect to see things I say appear in print unless they’ve cleared it with me.

    As an analyst, I’m fairly cautious about directly quoting vendor execs when we’ve spoken outside of a formal context (e.g. public announcement, many briefings). This is somewhat of a judgment call but, even if not actually confidential, I think there are a lot of cases where people don’t expect to see direct, attributed quotes in print.

  • Mark Evans

    When I was a journalist, the rules were clear. As well, you developed relationships where people could say things, and know that you wouldn’t publish them unless you asked and they gave you permission. I suspect blogs will evolve in the same direction if they want to become “media”.


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  • Tish Grier

    but not all blogs want to be “media” (as in mainstream media)–that’s a point of ongoing debate.

  • PRJack

    so, does this mean that you need some media training Mark? LOL ;-)

    One of the things that I try to keep telling people – especially those who are utterly dismissive of traditional media – is that there are significant differences between traditional and non-traditional journalists.

    Traditional journalists tend to have a ‘code of behaviour’ Sure they aren’t carved in stone and there will be as many interpretations as there are people, and as an agency person I’ve come to understand how that all works.

    With the ‘citizen-journalist’ (aka blogger) there are really no rules. As such it means that one has to be that much more careful when talking to a blogger – and that hamstringing of open-ness goes against the very nature of blogging… nice catch 22, isn’t it?

    This isn’t to say that one situation is better than the other, but rather, that the two can be and often are different enough that different engagement strategies need to be employed.

    Ultimately, blogger or journalist it really comes down to the same thing… building meaningful, trustworthy connections and relationships.

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