Updated ‘behind the scenes’ policies highlight need for improved media relations

Background policies are at the forefront of several major media outlets’ recently updated and reset editorial guidelines. For communicators, it reminds us that understanding and committing to the rules of engagement must be among our highest priorities.

Over the past few months, we have seen the following:

  • “Anyone who speaks to WIRED reporters in any capacity is doing so. on the default record.” (Cable)
  • “You may not email journalists statements preceded by on the background and suppose we will treat the material as if it were in the background.” (The Verge)
  • On substance, no attribution isn’t real, no matter how many times the PR pros say so.”Quartz)

Moreover, these calls to action go beyond mainstream publications. They encompass a wide range of societal organizations.

For example, the recently released “Guidelines on Provision of Information to the News Media” by the US Department of Health and Human Services states that “routinely” interviews with the media should be recorded.

Recent statements clearly show that on the background and in private continue, but not unless there is a firm agreement between all parties, before the conversation, never afterwards.

Nothing new

These collective directives are of course not new. We are taught these protocols as students or early in our careers, and we know they are true. Occasionally, procedures or policies are unclear and the pressure of deadlines can lead to misunderstandings, confusion and inadvertent missteps. These should be exceptions, not accepted behaviors.

Why, then, is this series of political clarifications happening now?

One of the main reasons is that worldwide, trust in the media is declining. Additionally, the spread of misinformation is on the rise. A recent Gallup poll found that only 7% of American adults trust newspapers, television and radio “a lot” and 29% “a fair amount”.

Edelman’s new 2022 Trust Barometer found that 67% of its 36,000 respondents in 28 countries believe journalists lie. And nearly one in two respondents see the media as a divisive force in society.

just the facts

Faced with these eye-opening statistics, it is understandable that the media would want to double down on the urgency of accuracy, transparency and accountability in their daily reporting. As such, it is our duty to ensure that the information we provide to the media is the same: accurate, transparent and accountable.

Late last year, The Verge updated its substantive policy.

We do this because big tech companies in particular have hired a dizzying array of communications personnel who routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect responsibility, shift the burden of truth to the media, and control usually the stories around the companies they work for while being boring to deal with.


No more pain

Some examples cited by The Verge for its change in policy are equally noteworthy:

“More than one big company insists on holding ‘behind the scenes without attribution’ product briefings, which means no one can properly report what company executives are saying about their own new products during briefings. marketing events.

A PR manager from a major tech company emailed us a link to the company’s website “on the background.”

A food delivery company insisted on discussing the popularity of chicken wings in the background.

Several big tech companies insist that public relations staffers be quoted as “sources familiar with the situation” even though they are paid spokespersons for the world’s most powerful companies.

While The Verge’s statement specifically (and subjectively) targets large tech companies, the need for professional and respectful collaboration is essential in all communications transactions. The exchange between communicators and the media must be two-way.

As an ongoing practice, we must bear in mind that the reputation of our organizations and professions is at stake in every interview, conversation and briefing we have with media of all types.

And all this, of course, is certainly not on the background.

Dr Felicia BloweAPR, is the PRSA 2022 President