No Facts? No Problem. Just Speculate.


Being a "source" lets you color the story. But that's a dangerous game to play. Photo courtesy of

Being a “source” lets you color the story.
But that’s a dangerous game to play.

Photo courtesy of

Journalists call them “thumb-suckers.”

Short on facts for a story? No problem. Rumors and speculation are fine. You don’t even need to be accurate. If events ultimately turn out differently, just blame the (usually unidentified) sources.

But one thing the media can’t abide is a vacuum. They’ve got news pages, blogs and air time to fill.

Consider the unceasing torrent of news stories about Syria: Will President Obama order an attack? When? Will Congress endorse any action? Can a diplomatic solution be brokered — and will it be effective?

Or the Federal Reserve: Will it ease stimulation of the economy by “tapering” its aggressive bond purchases? When? By how much? What effect will it have on the economy and the stock market?

And who was ahead at any specific point in the race to replace Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Fed — Janet Yellen, Larry Summers or some dark horse?

Enormous amounts of effort, ink and air time are expended for months on end. It keeps journalists and the political and economic commentariat employed.

It’s also predictable. Those who know the rules and understand what motivates the players can move nimbly and tip situations to benefit their clients.

Armies of influence-peddlers are deployed to sway decision-makers and public opinion. In the political realm, lobbyists and other operatives. In the business world, lawyers, investment bankers and Crisis & Reputation Management specialists.

You read about them every day but don’t know their names. They’re “informed sources,” “people close to the situation” and “officials with knowledge of the matter who aren’t authorized to speak publicly.”

Two concepts are critical — “not for attribution” and “off the record.” Don’t get them confused.

The first allows the journalist to use information, even a quote, as long as your name isn’t attached. Hence unnamed sources. A great way to run an idea up the flagpole or to fire a shot at an opponent with no danger of blowback.

The second — “off the record” — lets you define the context and color how a reporter interprets the situation. It’s more restrictive. Because it’s the deepest of background, the journalist can’t use it in his story. But you’ve planted a seed, so he can search elsewhere for another source.

The danger is even some journalists don’t understand the rules and may out you. The farther you go down the media’s food chain, the greater that danger becomes.


“Because Reputation Is Your Most Valuable Asset”

Gillott Communications is a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that specializes in high-stakes Crisis & Reputation Management. If you don’t already subscribe, please sign up for our blog Insights on High-Stakes PR. You can reach Roger Gillott directly at 310-826-8696.


2 thoughts on “No Facts? No Problem. Just Speculate.

  1. excellent point, as usual! Lois

    “Americas public lands are spectacular, free and horrendously neglected. Maybe members of Congress should hike the Pacific Crest Trail to see for themselves….Maybe when dwarfed by giant redwoods, recalcitrant politicians would absorb a lesson of nature. We are all part of something larger than ourselves.” Nicholas Kristoff, NYT 9/1/13

    Lois Phillips, PhD, Consultant, Coach, Speechwriting Services 2005 El Camino de la luz Santa Barbara, California 93109 805 637 3959 (C) City of SB License# 30225

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