‘Off the record’

This week, world news publisher, BuzzFeed News, posted an article about Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, and his scathing remarks and accusations regarding a Thai cave rescuer.

The article follows Musk’s initial accusation and subsequent apology regarding the cave diver that was involved in rescuing a junior football team trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand.

Early on in the Buzzfeed News piece, the writer confirms that the Tesla CEO stated that the email content was ‘off the record’, yet the article prints his accusations and scathing remarks towards both the cave diver and the journalist in question, including screen shots of the email trail. If you’ve not had chance to read the piece, I’d strongly suggest doing so, just so you can understand the magnitude of what’s at Tesla’s door now.

From a PR point of view, and potentially a legal one, this is a nightmare for Tesla.

While the seriousness of these accusations is a separate issue, and to be taken very seriously, there’s something to learn from Musk’s mistakes. Firstly, unless both parties agree to it up front, you are never off the record with press. No matter how many times you state it, how quietly or reluctantly you say it, if there is evidence that you said it, journalists are well within their right to print it.

In emails as scathing as the ones in question, the journalistic opportunity in printing them is colossal – as showcased by how many other news outlets have printed stories about this since. In this case, the reason for printing the information has been positioned as an example of powerful, wealthy personalities being able to make these accusations with little or no information at the detriment of the private citizen on the receiving end.

Will the journalist behind this piece lose any respect from peers, other journalists or PR professionals? Absolutely not. There’s a mutual understanding between these groups of people and none of these unwritten rules have been broken.

If we ask the same question of respect for Musk, however, the outcome may be a little different.