Embargo This…

Death to the embargo,” says Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch. Until further notice, one of the most widely read tech blogs will no longer honour embargoes.

Breaking NewsI have a bit of a beef with embargoes, especially when they’re used improperly (more on this later), but Arrington comes at this from a different angle:

“One annoying thing for us is when an embargo is broken. That means that a news site goes early with the news despite the fact that they’ve promised not to. The benefits are clear – sites like Google News and TechMeme prioritize them first as having broken the story. Traffic and links flow in to whoever breaks an embargo first.

That means it’s a race to the bottom by new sites, who are increasingly stressed themselves with a competitive marketplace and decreasing advertising sales.”

His problem isn’t the practice of embargoes as much as the media (online and offline, but I suspect primarily online) breaking them. Let’s face it, if I was doing the honourable thing by waiting to post embargoed news, and my competitor got the drop on me by breaking that embargo, I’d be pretty mad.

Quite frankly, I don’t blame Arrington for his move.

Aside from the hyper-competitive newspaper industry, there’s another problem with the current situation: PR people often mis-use embargoes.

On that note, here are four tips for people considering sending embargoed news:

Make sure it’s actually news

Use embargoes sparingly.

While getting news in advance may be useful for journalists as it lets them craft a thorough story instead of racing to press, it’s a two-way street. You’re helping them, but they’re also helping you by agreeing to honour your timelines.

Respect that fact. Don’t be a douche and try to embargo the ‘news’ about your new office space. Your survey is unlikely to be front-page news to many people. Try to educate your clients about this – you’ll do them a great favour.

Save your embargoes for the real news.

Ask first

If you send a journalist an embargoed release out of the blue, you’re asking for trouble. It’s like trying to tell a journalist that a comment is off the record after agreeing to an on-the-record interview.

Have a little respect. Ask them if they’d like embargoed information ahead of time. If the answer is “no,” don’t send it yet.

Be selective

Save embargoes for the journalists you know you can trust. Don’t send embargoed material to everyone; as I mentioned above, you’re asking for trouble. You’re already tailoring your pitches for journalists, right (or at least personalizing… please, say you are)? Tailor your approach, too.

Limit your embargoed information to journalists with whom you have an established relationship, with whom you’ve dealt before, and who have respected them in the past.

Make the timelines clear

Make the timelines blindingly obvious to the journalists. Eliminate the risk of misunderstandings. Don’t bury the dates/times at the end of your messages.

Journalists: Do you honour embargoes? What things would make you more likely to do so?

PR folks: What other tips would you offer on using embargoes?

  • For PR Folks, I would add: Be willing to deal appropriately with journalists and bloggers that break an embargo. You’re only creating more problems for yourself in the future if you just give them a slap on the wrist, so be willing to cut someone off from your future releases if they knowingly and willingly break an embargo.

  • You say “ask first” when sending potentially embargoed stories.

    I say that’s not strong enough. An embargo is a contract, wherein both sides agree to the terms. There absolutely cannot be a unilateral embargo.

    In other words, if you send an email with news that you marked as “embargoed,” and the recipient has not agreed in advance to honor that embargo, journalists are perfectly within their rights to publish that information immediately.

    (This assumes you don’t have a standing agreement with a particular journalist or news organization anticipating future embargoed material.)

  • Tim – I completely agree. 100%. I may not have been clear enough. By “ask first” I meant, quite literally, contacting them to see if they’re willing to agree to honour an embargo, BEFORE sending them any embargoed information.

  • Dave,

    In my previous life at The Sun in Baltimore, I was amazed at how many faxes and emails came across marked “Embargoed.”

    It would be just as effective to mail a banana with a tag saying “The color of this fruit is red.”

    🙂

  • In our shop, embargoes go hand in hand with exclusives. We only offer them to journalists we know and trust and who have expressed a desire to write a more in-depth story on the information in the release. To send out an embargoed release shotgun style is not a best practice.

  • Peter Soeth

    Sorry for getting into the conversation late.

    I have to agree with Rick, I don’t use embargoes unless it is someone I know and trust to write a story. I have been able to get some good stories from that. But I usually don’t use embargoes.

    I also don’t ask them to hold it that long. The most I would do would be a day, but most are a couple of hours. In today’s media if an outlet gets a story earlier than another it provides more incentive.