Be Careful Around Those Microphones and Cameras

You’re having a non-work-related party at your home Saturday night. Invited are neighbors, relatives and friends, including me, a journalist by day. We're there to enjoy conversation, drinks, an elegant diner and a terrific view of the city from your high rise. It’s a perfect night.

During cocktails I overhear two of your guests talking about the head of a large government agency. It’s clear to me the two guests work at the agency they’re discussing. Also clear is that the doings of this agency head, a political appointee, include malfeasance of a pretty high order. For example, they allege he's misusing agency funds for personal enjoyment. The agency head, married with two adorable young children, also is seeing his chief of staff on the side.

I realize that if half of what your two guests are discussing is true, I have a big story. What should I do? Hold that thought; we’ll return to it shortly.

Donald Trump, in 2005, is sitting in a trailer with entertainment journalist Billy Bush. They have microphones clipped to their clothing in preparation for taping an Access Hollywood segment. The formal interview is yet to occur, but Trump and Bush have established a relationship. They’re engaging in friendly banter as they leave the trailer to begin filming an interview. They fail to realize their microphones are hot.

Had Trump been your client I’m sure you’d have told him an interview is never really over, particularly in today’s digital age, where all a reporter needs to publish a story is an internet connection. I’m also sure some of you are thinking there’s an important corollary here, and one that relates to our opening scenario at the party. You’re right. With social media, everyone is a reporter, including patrons in restaurants, students in school, passengers on an Amtrak train (remember New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the quiet car?).

Second, I’m guessing had Trump been your client you’d have counseled him to be aware of speaking carefully in front of journalists at all times, social situations included; be wary before an interview begins and after it’s supposedly over.

You’ve also no doubt instructed your clients about what off-the-record means. The short answer: It means different things depending on the journalist you’re dealing with. To some journalists and PR pros, the term off-the-record does not exist. For that reason it’s critical to go over ground rules with the journalist who’s interviewing you. By the way, definitions for terms such as “background” and “deep background” also need to be clarified. Leave nothing to chance.

So back to our opening scenario: The hard truth is that I can take the information I learned at your party. My first stop would be to present it to the communications staffer I deal with at that government agency. I'll probably need to get it confirmed elsewhere—I can’t imagine agency staff will help me much. After that, I'm on my way with a good story.

My preference would be to follow the trail of the misused money for my story as opposed to the more salacious details of the affair the agency head is having with his chief of staff. To me, that’s not news I want to report. I can’t guarantee a colleague would feel the same way, however. On the other hand, if the agency head is using taxpayer funds to pay for candlelit dinners and gifts for his lover, well, it’s just become part of the story I want to report.

Of course, had you told me clearly before your party began that nothing I hear during the evening can be used, ie, that all conversations are off-the-record, then I have no story. Technically I can't use the information I heard at the party, even if I want to pursue it via other avenues. Again, other journalists might debate that point.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein