Do PRs really not understand the Chatham House rule?

25 November 2006

It's the only conclusion I could draw as I picked up on a thread about a PR going into high dudgeon about being 'prevented' from blogging about a meeting held under "Chatham House rules". It's not as if Chatham House does not make it clear what the rule actually means. Note that there is only one rule:

"When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."

OK, that the debate was about freedom of information does tickle a couple of irony bones, but the rule is no gagging order. You can write what you like about the meeting - you just can't attribute quotes to anybody. Now, that might not be all that useful to a journalist but, if you think you're going to learn more by accepting the rule rather than staying outside the room, it is not too painful a compromise.

You can always ask people afterwards if they are comfortable with their name going alongside a juicy nugget. But, without that feeling of protection, some people are not going to offer up those nuggets. That's just one of those things. Deal with it. Don't get on some high horse about being "as good as gagged". I bet Seymour, in her role as PR (among being head cook and bottle washer according to the tagline on her blog), frequently advises her clients to only say things to the press they are prepared to see in print with their name attached. She would hardly be doing her job if she didn't - although I won't complain if she, in fact, eggs them on to say what they like.

However, I never cease to be amazed by the number of people in marketing communications who don't have the first idea what "off the record", "on background" or "non-attrib(uted)" actually mean in practice. Some wield these phrases as though as they have talismanic power. ("You can't write that, I played my off-the-record card"). I never forget one marcoms manager ruefully reflecting on the malleable meaning on "on background" to journalists on financial papers after his talisman failed to take effect. He, apparently, asked the hack who broke the spell why he had reported the juicy (but supposedly unprintable comments). "It was the only thing worth reporting from the meeting," came the reply.

Is there a sanction for breaking the Chatham House rule? If you are a member of Chatham House, then yes, there is. They could throw you out of the club, I guess. In reality, there is no sanction although no-one says you have to return future phone calls. But the hack who ignored the on-background 'restriction' probably didn't think there would be all that many phone calls to that particular marcom in the future.


Chris, You misunderstood me, or maybe I didn't make it clear on my post. As a journalist, I cannot write a story without attributing its source, it could be totally fictitious. I have never published a story/blog without attributing its source. The whole point of the event yesterday was to discuss freedom of information, truth, lies and spin and it seemed very ironic to invoke these rules on such an occasion. As it turned out, only one of the speakers had asked for it, and he said nothing sensational during the day. I was very much testing the water and found it fascinating.

Chris, just posted on Ellee and yourself and will now go back and update with your last comment on her site.

Chris, I wasn't taking issue with the Chatham House rule, but more the subject matter of the conference and the specific individual who felt the need for it. Irony isn't strong enough, Greenstock is someone who is happy to breach the confidence of others but feels he needs some sort of special protecion. Hans Blix I could have understood and respected asking for it, but Greenstock is incredible.