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The Rules of Media Engagement: On-Record vs. Background

Media calls are more nuanced than simply speaking over the phone. Reporters use information in different ways, which means they conduct interviews in different ways as well. There are two ways to speak during an interview: on-record and on-background. Practicing both can help you respond well to questions and control how the media portrays your district.

Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the differences between on-record and on-background communication.

On-record media responses

Speaking on-record means the reporter can quote your exact words from the interview. If they’re a newspaper reporter, they will translate audio excerpts into writing and attribute the quotes to you. When you go on-record, it’s important to speak professionally and provide context with the facts. Anything you say is fair game!

This type of media interaction may seem intimidating at first. However, careful planning can help you deliver eloquently-worded responses. Prepare to go on-record by jotting down three key points before the interview. These are the messages you want to convey to the audience. Answer the reporter’s questions using these key points to give them thoughtful, well-informed quotes.

On-background media responses

Speaking on-background tends to be a bit less nerve-racking for district leaders. This form of media engagement means the reporter is simply collecting information. Unlike going on-record, the reporter cannot pull quotes from background questions. They will rephrase the facts in their own words and cite you as the source of information.

While the exact wording matters slightly less, district leaders still need to prepare before speaking on-background. Well-thought-out responses can prevent you from being taken out of context. Don’t just answer the reporter’s questions and hang up. Answer their questions, then provide any additional information that’s necessary to get a full picture of the story.

Know before you speak

Before diving into the interview, ask the reporter if you’ll be speaking on-record or on-background. The type of media interaction will determine how you respond to their questions. If they want to quote you, knowing this ahead of time will allow you to deliver information exactly how you want it to appear in the newspaper. You and the reporter should also make it clear when you’re transitioning from on-background to on-record and vice versa.

Much like anything in life, speaking on-record and on-background takes practice. Try not to think of media calls as a necessary evil. In fact, they can help you become a better communicator. The more interviews you complete, the easier it’ll get to navigate these two forms of media engagement.

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