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Tom Alderman Headshot

What Part of "It's Never Off the Record" Don't You Get?

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The first person to take a hit for the disastrous McChrystal-Rolling Stone article was the general's PR guy -- which is like firing the fella who sets up the meeting room. Unless he forgot to remind the general and his staff about never being off the record, Duncan Boothby will go down as collateral damage in this very public "teaching moment."

And here's the moment's lesson: it's not just about talking to the media. This is the digital age, you are never off the record when talking to the public -- period! Because of video and camera phones, everyone is the media now. Remember George Allen's campaign-ending Macaca moment caught on a cell phone?

It's scary how many highly skilled executives become clueless Aunt Blabbies when talking to their audiences. McChrystal and his execs are only the latest. California's hardy perennial Jerry Brown said he thought he was "off-the-record" when he likened Meg Whitman's campaign to a Nazi propaganda machine and actor Val Kilmer had to grovel after his untidy remarks about his New Mexico neighbors showed up in Rolling Stone. Is it just ego -- people strutting their stuff in front of an audience? Could be.

Which brings us back to the McChrystal teaching moment for anyone who talks to the public. Journalists are neither the enemy nor your new best friend. Like most of us, they're doing their job and their job is to write the best damn story they can. And the best damn story has a singular and essential ingredient all reporters are looking for: where's the friction? Who's up, who's down, who's in, who's out, what's right, what's not. Without friction, the story just doesn't have much Velcro with an audience. Literature and history is about friction: nation vs. nation, communism vs. capitalism, nature vs. nurture, Sunni vs. Shia, red states vs. blue states, PC vs. Mac.

Friction is NOT something to avoid when talking to the media. Fighting a war in a hostile desert environment has enough friction for thousands of news stories.

Maybe these executives thought Rolling Stone was just a rock n' roll entertainment magazine. It is. But it's also the magazine of serious newsies like gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, Time Magazine's Joe Klein and conservative columnist P.J. O'Rourke, among many others.

There's no question the digital age and the internet has further limited what a public figure should, and should not say when talking to someone other than him or herself. That's problematic. It also makes it harder for reporters, and the public, to get at all the facts of a story. But that does not change the first commandment of all public dialogue: YOU ARE NEVER OFF THE RECORD!

The Washington Post's respected publisher, Katherine Graham, was a gracious D.C. host whose frequent drink-and-mingle parties included government officials and journalists of all stripes. She maintained a strict rule: in her house, everything was off the record. One day, the story goes, a reporter gets a call from the publisher with a juicy news bit from one of her guests the previous evening. "What happened to your rule about off the record?" asks her reporter. "Oh, it's always off the record," says the publisher, "...unless it's really good."

End of lesson.