The new rules of engagement

Rules of engagement are important in any conflict or interaction between opposing sides. However, social media has dramatically shifted the accepted views of what defines a journalist, what rules govern the exchanges between journalists and sources, and how the traditional attribution guidelines apply.

There is still confusion in many government offices about what “on background,” “off the record” and “not for attribution” mean. They are often used interchangeably and invoked after a comment has been made.

Common sense tells us that nothing said to an audience of 50 or more is off the record, especially when a good portion of the listeners are tweeting during the talk. But some executives remain surprised when the information gets out.

It is also common for government agencies to try to control the information flow right before a big announcement — just as it is common for a whole host of media and news organizations to try to find out the news before the official announcement.

The recent launch of the Obama administration’s digital strategy is a good example. The announcement was an open secret because it had been delayed since March to add new features and get sign-off at higher levels. A senior Office of Management and Budget official spoke at an industry event under the impression that the conversation was off the record. The talk was taped, multiple tweets appeared on the screen behind the speaker, and everything that was said became very public.

OMB’s reaction was to shut down all appearances by staff members except those at the highest level. Communications shriveled. It’s an interesting contradiction from an administration that promotes transparency.

In the wake of the clampdown, many organizations are redefining and rewriting press policies so the misunderstanding doesn’t happen again. In the new world, everyone should assume that everything will leak out and, therefore, is on the record.

We think that’s a good thing. Communication helps the market and the government. It’s the lack of a dialogue that creates problems.

About the Author

Anne Armstrong is president and chief content officer of 1105 Government Information Group.

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