Today, The Verge is updating our public ethics policy to be clearer in our interactions with public relations and corporate communications professionals. We’re doing this because big tech companies in particular have hired a dizzying array of communications staff who routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect accountability, pass the burden of truth to the media, and generally control the narratives around the companies they work for while being annoying as hell to deal with.
The main way this happens is that big companies take advantage of a particular agreement in the media called “background.” Being “on background” means that they tell things to reporters, but those reporters agree to not specifically attribute that information to a person by name. Oftentimes, companies will make things significantly worse and also insist that background information be paraphrased, further obscuring both specific details and the source of those details.
There are many reasons a reporter might agree to learning information on background, but importantly, being on background is supposed to be an agreement.
But the trend with big tech companies now is to increasingly treat background as a default or even a condition of reporting. That means reporters are now routinely asked to report things without being able to attribute them appropriately, and readers aren’t being presented with clear sources of information.
This all certainly feeds into the overall distrust of the media, which has dire consequences in our current information landscape, but in practice, it is also hilariously stupid.
Here are some examples:
• More than one big company insists on holding product briefings “on background with no attribution” which means no one can properly report what company executives say about their own new products during marketing events.
• A big tech company PR person emailed us a link to the company’s own website “on background.”
• A food delivery company insisted on discussing the popularity of chicken wings on background.
• Multiple big tech companies insist on having PR staffers quoted as “sources familiar with the situation” even though they are paid spokespeople for the most powerful companies in the world.
• A large recruiting company claimed it was an unethical double standard for us to attribute a statement to their spokesperson because we asked the company to respond to allegations from former employees who spoke to us anonymously.
• A big tech company insisted on describing the upgrade requirements for its new operating system on background. Details which it then repeatedly changed… on background.
• A major car company’s head of communications told us an April Fools’ joke was actually real on background. The joke was not real.
• A major platform’s head of communications would only explain a content moderation decision attributed to “a source familiar,” tried to refute our characterization of that decision after we published, and then threatened to cut our reporter off from further communication.
• A big tech company sent us a statement “on the record” with the caveat that it could not be attributed to a specific individual.
• A major delivery company spokesperson, asked when the company would be profitable, insisted that the following statement only be paraphrased on background: “We’re investing in the enormous opportunity to enable omnichannel commerce for local businesses.”
• A major video game company gave a briefing “on background.” After we used that information in our story, attributing it to the company generally, a PR person tried to renegotiate what “on background” meant after the fact to avoid any attribution whatsoever, even going so far as to imply to our reporter that her editor had agreed to change specific sentences. (The editor had agreed to nothing of the sort.)
This list could go on and on — the clear pattern is that tech companies have uniformly adopted a strategy of obfuscating information behind background. It’s also easy to see why companies like to abuse background: they can provide their point of view to the media without being accountable for it. Instead, journalists have to act like they magically know things, and readers have to guess who is trustworthy and who is not.
This is bad, so we’re going to reset these expectations as loudly as possible.
- From now on, the default for communications professionals and people speaking to The Verge in an official capacity will be “on the record.”
- We will still honor some requests to be on background, but at our discretion and only for specific reasons that we can articulate to readers.
To be even more specific, here is the new section we’re adding to our public ethics policy, located here. If you are a communications or public relations professional, you can reach out to me and we can discuss it further, but it is unlikely you will change my mind.
This language will be added to The Verge’s ethics policy, effective today:
SOURCING STANDARDS AT THE VERGE
The Verge maintains high standards for sourcing. Our reporters will always carefully explain our sourcing practices to you and strive to protect your confidentiality when appropriate.
If you are a communications professional, or talking to us in your official capacity, we will abide by the following definitions.
ON THE RECORD
“On the record” is the default for talking to reporters and editors at The Verge. You say things, we record them, we can report who you are and quote what you said. We will expect corporate communications professionals and people speaking to us in an official capacity to be on the record in almost every single case, and you will have to tell us why you want to change this default every single time.
“On background” means you can talk to us and we will not specifically identify you, instead using a descriptor like “company spokesperson.” If you are a corporate communications professional speaking to us in your official capacity, we will not in any circumstances attribute you as “a source familiar.”
Going “on background” is an agreement between you and the reporters or editors you speak to at The Verge. The general rules of an agreement apply: you may offer to go on background, and we will accept or deny your request. If we do not specifically accept, there is no agreement.
- You cannot email Verge reporters statements prefaced with “On background” and assume we will treat the material as if it is on background.
- You cannot tell us how a statement is to be attributed without asking.
- You cannot say things like “background not for attribution,” and we will not agree to that terminology. This is just off the record. Say what you mean.
A reminder: you have to ask, and we have to agree. Every single time.
OFF THE RECORD
“Off the record” is simple: you talk to us, we agree not to use anything we hear in any of our reporting unless we can source it otherwise. Like background, off the record is an agreement. If we don’t agree, you are not off the record.
We do not readily agree to off-the-record conversations with corporate communications professionals or people speaking in their official capacities without specific reasons.