Not authorised to speak to the media

2 February 2017
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“Bob spoke with us on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.”

How often have you read that line? It’s a common technique for many journalists who have not managed to get everything they wanted on the record. While some journalists avoid this approach, many readers actually respond well to it – it adds a sort of mystery and intrigue to the piece.

But this isn’t about journalists; this is about Bob. Why has Bob spoken with the media when his company policy instructed him not to?

In some cases, leaks can be part of a strategy. It can be a good (though risky) way of getting information out without taking responsibility for it. For example, if our vessel was involved in a collision that we believe was the fault of the other party. We should never make this allegation in an official public statement for both legal and reputational reasons, but, with great care, we might get Bob to anonymously tell a journalist that it was definitely the other vessel’s fault.

This is NOT strategic advice, but it is a technique commonly used by some communicators.

However, it’s more likely that Bob is truly speaking without authorisation. 1. Maybe he’s caught off guard when a journalist approaches him. 2. Maybe he resents the company’s policy restricting him from speaking. 3. Maybe he is just being helpful and doesn’t see what the big deal is.

Ultimately, media and social media policies are almost impossible to enforce, and employees know this. Therefore, if your team doesn’t support and understand your company’s policy, there’s little point having it.

Media training and candid discussion about the policy is important for all staff. If Bob had effective media training his three reasons for leaking information to a journalist likely could have been addressed and his company wculd have retained control of the coverage.

  1. It is understandable that Bob is unprepared. However, if Bob had practiced responding to journalist approaches he wouldn’t have been caught off guard.
  2. Bob doesn’t like rules that he doesn’t understand. Bob knows more about the technical aspects of this situation than anyone on the comms team. Why shouldn’t he speak to the journalist? If your policy is arbitrarily repressive then in needs to be changed, but in most cases, the policy is backed up by sound reasoning. A frank discussion, especially in the context of training, is a great way to help Bob accept the policy’s rational.
  3. Bob didn’t say anything that wasn’t true, so what’s the big deal? Without proper context and balance, even a truthful answer can completely misrepresent a company. Studying examples of how companies have been damaged by unconsidered comments is important to understanding the rational for any good media policy.

Next time you read something from an “unauthorised source,” ask yourself a question. Why did they speak to the journalist and what could their employer have done to dissuade them from leaking information – or are you, the reader, being manipulated by a strategy of authorised leaks?

Dustin Eno
COO & Crisis Response Manager

T: +44 (0)20 3326 8467

Twitter: @dustineno

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