Should we use media embargoes?

An embargo is a mutual agreement between a reporter and a company to withhold the announcement of news until a specific date and time. A useful mechanism, they’ve been over-used for the wrong purposes and are now falling into some disrepute.

Until I came to the US, I’d never used an embargo. On the day of the news announcement, you’d simply pitch the story to your primary contacts, hoping they’d be available, have time to cover the news and that interview schedules would work out. And this works fine for the vast majority of news announcements today, and is standard in many countries.

The embargo became useful when you wanted to be able to talk to people in advance. This would mean you could speak to more reporters/bloggers and get more news the day of. In turn, the reporters would be able to schedule the interviews better, write a more researched piece and know they’d be first with the news. It was a win-win.

And so, the use of embargoes escalated. For instance, it was a way for print reporters to break news at the same time as blogs – 9.00pm PT being a classic time since that’s the time the WSJ refreshes its online content. For PR teams, it meant that you got more coverage through sheer weight of numbers – more time to pitch and hold interviews.

But the system started to break down. The quality of embargoed news started to dilute – an announcement which didn’t have much value might get a bit more pop if it was embargoed. And some media outlets broke embargoes to get a jump on their competitors. The temptation is always there for PR departments to embargo weak news and for media outlets to leak strong stories.

This is a recipe for frustration all round. If an embargo is broken, everyone who held to the deadline is rightly annoyed, and some vent that towards the PR firm and client, not to mention the offending outlet. Breaking an embargo is a lose-lose since it’s not a given that the breaker gets the links and traffic, and it means the relationship with the agency and company is then damaged. For larger firms, this could be a bigger repercussion than the potential upside of the leak.

Embargoes have also been mishandled with PR representatives sending the embargoed news without getting agreement that the reporter will hold to it beforehand. Some publications have guidelines about how far in advance they can receive such news, and other flatly refuse to honor them, which is fine.

All this said, I do think embargoes can work and are appropriate in certain circumstances:

– if the news is significant and far reaching ie there are lots of potential people who would be interested
– if the announcement is complex ie it needs demonstrating and explaining
– if there are commercial reasons why details can’t be shared gradually over time beforehand eg competitive pressure
– if the goal is to get a lot of coverage and the company has the resources to do so

The challenge then becomes who to include and how many outlets to involve. There is a natural tendency to increase the list from the perspective of inclusion (so as not to miss vital people out and end up damaging relationships). Against this, the more included, the greater the risk of the embargo breaking. It’s a difficult process to manage, but if done properly (and with some luck) embargoes can be beneficial all round.