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This article originally appeared in PRWeek

Companies sometimes find themselves in a muddle over the use of “on background” interviews. What does it mean – and when should it be used?

“On background” is one of a several pieces of jargon around journalists can use information – off the record” “not for attribution”, “on the record” and “with quote checks”. It is an Americanism become more popular here, and the source of the most confusion.

Many journalists take “on background” to mean they can use information provided, but not disclose their source in an article. However, some clients conflate the term with an off-the-record discussion – where a reporter needs explicit permission to use anything from the interview.

This divergence matters. If you’re commenting on a broad topic like regulatory policy, you can’t easily be identified.  But if it’s your company’s plans, then the source is fairly obvious. Once you’ve said something, your leverage to say “please don’t write about that until October” is weaker. 

This begs the question of why and when a company would want to speak on background.

One reason is to get the measure of a new journalist and establish rapport bycreating a good impression while limiting risk.  Some outlets – including the FT – play along, especially for a major company.  They say “I’ll come back if I want to use anything and we’ll agree what can be put on the record.”  Other journalists don’t want the inefficiency of doing two interviews – especially from a marginal source.

A somewhat related reason is speaking on background allows the spokesperson to be more interesting and stimulate further interest from the journalist. This can work, but it needs careful consideration of the relationship between what you say on background and on the record. If there is too big a gap – lots of punchy views and industry gossip on background, boring product sales-speak on the record – you simply turn off the journalist.  Journalists want to be able to cite sources on business stories.

At a first meeting with a reporter on background, don’t talk about subjects where you are unlikely to want to go on the record. There may be sensitive topics where you might be able to say something cautious later: think through the relationship between what you are saying now and later on the record quotes.  Your on background content should lead logically to future print comments.

Some clients are happy to provide on background views on issues, with the aim of helping inform coverage that might assist them commercially.

The idea that journalists will explicitly trade lots of useful information on background for the occasional on the record boring comment is overdone. It may exist in places, particularly for experts at a major firms in areas like M&A advisory or consultancy, but not as much as some believe.

Finally, consider when on background may not be useful. Often speaking with a journalist on the record, especially when you have strong things to say or news to convey, is more effective with fewer hidden risks.