The News Embargo is Not “So Yesterday”

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When an embargo on a social media news announcement was breached in November, a prominent tech journalist sent out a sarcasm-laced tweet: “Shocking!”

This was just one of many broken embargoes in the tech industry last year. I recall one particularly memorable breach (and tweet) that lit up the Twitter transom in August after eWeek broke Google’s embargo on Gmail Priority Inbox. By some accounts, there were more breaches in 2010 than ever before – some were accidental, and some were not.

So why bother with embargoes?

Embargoes can be useful. As a PR practitioner, I pre-brief journalists under embargo only when I believe my client has particularly newsworthy corporate and product announcements. This approach has always seemed like a win-win situation for major stories. Embargoes often result in quality coverage for companies, and on the flipside embargoes give reporters time to research and write their stories before the press release hits the wire.

As we all know in the PR business, once the press release is out, the news is about as inviting as a waft of Limburger cheese. Many reporters appreciate the time the embargo buys them. Sure the investigative news journalists and bloggers bristle at the thought of anyone controlling the release of news, but most agree to honor the embargo because they know they wouldn’t have the story otherwise.

In Embargoes We Trust

The concept of embargoes was conceived in a pre-hyper-communications world where journalists and PR professionals formed “real” relationships over Martini lunches (ah, I remember the good old days she says with nostalgia). Trust is critical to the success of any embargo, and relationships aren’t easily forged over the Internet. The temptation to be the first out of the gate with the news is strong because the publication that breaks the story wins in the viral game. In this age of social media, the big industry-shaking stores are sure to go viral.

But, isn’t an agreement still an agreement even if you have to cement it with a virtual handshake these days?

Fortunately, in my 15 years in PR, I have experienced only one intentionally broken embargo by a now defunct tech magazine. The reporter had agreed to the embargo, and was truly mortified when his editor over-ruled him and the story went out early. That publication quickly became known for its anti-embargo policy, and as a result its reporters weren’t invited to participate in pre-briefings on the major industry stories.

Will the demise of Martini lunches lead to the demise of embargoes?

Should we end the practice of embargoes? Even I’ve wavered on this one given the frequency of ethical lapses lately. However, a recent experience suggests that embargoes still have a role to play in the highly competitive tech market where favoritism (i.e. exclusives) breeds enemies.

I was working with a company whose PR strategy called for embargoing our news so as to reach all the key industry analysts and publications rather than giving one publication an exclusive. But there was pressure from the company’s Board of Directors to get downloads as quickly as possible. We buckled and approached key tech reporters and bloggers with our pitch. We briefed the first to make room on her calendar, and I must say that we were very pleased to get into that publication. However, when the story broke, we nearly lost the second interview we had lined up with an equally important publication because the reporter was understandably peeved to find she had been scooped by a competitor. By this point we had zero chance of getting into industry-heavyweight, TechCrunch.

By the end of our campaign we had several decent stories in online blogs and hundreds of downloads, but no coverage by the traditional news and trade publications (or by the industry analysts) whose publishing lead times are usually much longer. Now juxtapose this with a quasi-competitor who released their news under an embargo. They set up many briefings for the press with their executive staff, and had plenty of time to follow up with requests for follow up interviews and materials. That company’s clip book was three times the size of ours and included a fair number of key publications in the traditional and social media realm that covered their product launch in depth.

Other Options: Exclusives, Press Conferences

There’s always the fall-back option of holding a press conference or giving an exclusive to one select publication. To hold a press conference, your company has to be a big name or your announcement has to be on the magnitude of discovering the missing link between man and ape to get people to attend (even for an online press conference), and as I wrote in an earlier blog there’s “No Consensus on Exclusives in the News Business” either. For tech companies it’s harder than ever to get noticed. Exclusives limit exposure, but worse, they alienate the journalists who don’t get the exclusive.

If you choose to set up interviews under an embargo, then you should find out where a reporter or publication stands on them. Several publications have openly declared that they will break every embargo that comes their way.

Fed up with being scooped by publications who break embargoes at the 11th hour, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington blogged Death to the Embargo in 2008, promising to break every embargo we agree to.” In principle he was okay with the concept because he noted that the stories his bloggers are asked to embargo “aren’t stories that we’ve dug up ourselves.” His issue with embargoes was that they are offered to “literally everyone who writes tech news stories,” and he noted that there’s “no downside” to breaking them because the PR firms continue to work with them.

This past November, Kara Swisher of the Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsDigital declared that she has “just joined the army of TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington on this irksome issue” as a result of the broken embargo on RockMelt. So in sum, my recommendation is to use embargoes judiciously. There’s a time and a place for them, but first ask yourself if your news really warrants a pre-briefing, and consider other options such as exclusives and press conferences (if you are big enough to draw a crowd).  If you decide to pre-brief under embargo, confine your briefing invitation list to those reporters and bloggers you know and trust.

I contacted three J-Schools to find out what they teach on the subject of embargoes:

Boston University: My Alma Mater

  • Boston University: College of Communication
  • The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
  • Northwestern University: Medhill School of Journalism.

I made my inquiries over the holidays so not surprisingly I didn’t get too many thoughtful replies. Let’s put it down to finals and end of semester breaks. I am thankful for these helpful replies that I did get:

Medhill’s Dean of Curriculum said that Medill doesn’t have a policy on embargoes that it teaches because different faculty have different approaches and opinions on the subject.

A senior lecturer at Boston University replied that “on the face of it, it sounds like someone is trying to control the news for their own agenda…I’m guessing that most editors would find this practice to be unsavory.”

It looks like this embargo debate will rage into the next-generation of reporters and bloggers.

Further Reading

Death to the Embargo 

Wall Street Journal All Things Digital
Arrington proclaims that TechCrunch will break all news embargoes in the future

Business Insider
Boston Globe’s Scott Kirsner Talks Embargoes And Exclusives

In embargo we trust

Best Practices for Embargoes

MediaWatch: More About Embargoes…

Internet News
This tech news is not embargoed

PageOne PR
To Embargo, or Not To Embargo?

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