The Terms You Need to Know Before You Talk to Journalists

What are the terms you should know before ever speaking to a journalist? I’m David Gerzof Richard, founder and president of big fish PR, and we’re going to start with the terms “exclusive” versus “embargo”.

What is an Exclusive?

An exclusive is an agreement between you (as the source) and a journalist and their news agency, that you will only be giving them the story and that you will not give any other media outlet that story until their story publishes on their media outlet. Journalists and their respective media outlets take this very seriously, and they will not disregard an exclusive. It’s very important for you to do the same. If you do break an exclusive, you will forever burn the relationship with that reporter and that news outlet you will never get ink or digital characters or video out of that news outlet ever again.

What is an Embargo?

An embargo is similar to an exclusive, except that it’s with multiple news agencies and it’s an agreement between you as a source and these news agencies that they will not report the story until a predetermined date and time. This gives you the ability to pitch your story and to tell your story to multiple news outlets. Brief them, get them up to speed, and give them enough time to write prepare a quality news story so that when you announce your news, their stories are already in the can and ready to go.

This is how oftentimes you’ll see a large brand make an announcement and within minutes all of the news agencies have well written well prepared new stories. If you’ve ever wondered how that happens, it’s because of the embargo.

The Difference Between On Record and Off Record

Now, we’re going to talk about “on record” and “off record”. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had who are dying to get in front of the press and say, “off record” or “no comment” or “on record”. I know it’s exciting, but let’s take a step back first and understand what we’re actually saying.

On record is anything that you say in the presence of the media of the journalist or reporter. You have to always assume if you have a mic on, if you’re talking to a reporter, that reporters in a room with you, you are on record. This means that anything that you say or do can be reported on in the press.

Off record is something that you can say to a reporter in advance, and it’s always good to get them to confirm. What I mean by that is to say, “hey, can we go off record?” and they’ll say yes, and you say, “can you confirm for me that we’re off the record?” and the report will say back to you “we are off the record.” When you go off record, you are talking and giving reporters information that gives them better understanding of your industry, your product or service, your competitors, what have you. It’s information that is for their own edification to help them write the story; it’s not for them to publish because you wouldn’t want your secret sauce to get out there.

So that is why you use “off record” and you should always, always confirm with the reporter when you’re off record. When you go back on record, it’s very important to say “hey, we’re going back on record” and confirm that so that you have a a beginning and an end for when you are off record

“On Background” and “Deep Background”

Two other terms that we should be aware of is “on background” and “deep background.” On background is information that you’re sharing with a reporter that they can use, but they cannot attribute to you. This would be something like “sources familiar with the deal…” or “a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley says…” It’s not pointing to you directly, and it is still attributed to an entity but it is an anonymous entity.

Deep Background is background that you is information you give to a reporter to help them fill in the gaps for a story, but in no way can it be attributed to you. It’s not meant to be published in any way; it’s just to help them have a framework, an understanding of what it is that you’re doing so that they can write a better story.

“No Comment”

One last term that you need to know and you need to be really careful with before you wrap up is “no comment.” I have so many clients and just want to say “no comment” to a reporter, whether it’s because they watched too many episodes of law and order or what, I don’t know. But let me tell you: “no comment” is tantamount to saying “I did it, I’m guilty, put me in jail, throw away the key.”

Much better and much preferred by me and what I tell my clients to say when they’re asked a question that they don’t want to answer is “I have nothing for you.” When’s the last time that you see not in print or on the nightly news? Someone saying “I have nothing for you” is boring; it’s not going to get play in the media so learn that. “I’ve got nothing for you” is much better than “no comment.”

About David Richard

David Gerzof Richard is the founder and president of BIGfish Communications, an award-winning public relations agency that works with disruptive innovation and technology brands. Over the past 16 years, David has successfully developed and executed numerous PR, marketing, and social influence campaigns across a broad range of industries. In 2003 David was appointed a professor at Emerson College where he currently teaches a range of marketing and public relations courses. He also lectures regularly at Harvard University and contributes to a variety of national online, print and broadcast business news outlets. David can be found on Twitter @DavidGerzof and on the web at

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