Embargoes Get No Love from Reporters

Embargoes Get No Love

By Colleen Wickwire

Per Wikipedia, an embargo is described as “a request by a source that the information or news provided not be published until a certain date or certain conditions have been met. The understanding is that if the embargo is broken by reporting it before then, the source will retaliate by restricting access to further information by that journalist or his publication, giving them a long-term disadvantage relative to more cooperative outlets.” (see full entry here).

This past Thursday night I attended a roundtable event titled “Embargo 2010: An Industry Discussion on Future Rules of Media Engagement,” that was hosted by Waggener Edstrom and held in downtown San Francisco at the Varnish Gallery. Sam Whitmore moderated the panel of reporters that included Mark Glaser of PBS’ MediaShift blog, Damon Darlin of The New York Times, Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher and Dylan Tweney of Wired (a replacement for TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, who canceled last-minute). The session lasted for an hour, but could have gone on all night because I walked away realizing two things:

(1) no other subject seems to provoke such passionate discussion from a reporter; and

(2) we’re still a long way off from finding a symbiotic solution that will resolve the complications embargoes can produce.

The general consensus from the panel was that the embargo does serve a purpose. It allows time to further investigate into a story so that there’s more in-depth and thoughtful reporting. By the same token, embargoes are not welcomed with open arms, but rather as something that is tolerated because they are a necessity for some reporters (e.g., those writing product reviews). The biggest issue with embargoes is that they are often broken by competing journalists. One perspective that I thought should be repeated is from VentureBeat’s Paul Boutin (who was in the audience). He explained that once a story has been reported on, there’s no opportunity for follow up stories since the competition for page views is essentially over at that point. For instance, if TechCrunch posts a story before VentureBeat does (or vice versa) people aren’t going to read it again somewhere else. He believes that embargoes do work since they essentially line up reporters “like horses at the racetrack.” {see Paul’s take on embargoes here}

In terms of solutions, the panel addressed some interesting suggestions. Tom Foremski brought up the idea of announcing news via a press conference (virtual or otherwise) so that it levels the playing field by allowing everyone to learn the news at once. {see video here}

Others said that issuing news via a company blog (à la Google News blog) or via Twitter are the preferred alternatives. From a PR perspective, these both seem like great channels for issuing news if you are Google, but I question the effectiveness for Startup Company X, which has yet to develop its own “watchers” or “followers.” Not to mention the disservice it does to a reporter who may not be as familiar with the space, something more commonplace as newsrooms shrink everyday.

Other opinions reinforced the importance of relationships and how leveraging them (based on relevance and audience influence) for exclusive reporting is preferable.  While this certainly benefits some reporters by allowing them time for in-depth reporting, by design it greatly reduces the opportunity for clients to receive wide spread coverage of their news and definitely does not benefit the smaller outlets that likely won’t make the cut. While there wasn’t one single solution that seemed to appease everyone, there are two main takeaways – addressed as pet peeves – that should be reiterated here (although they are likely a no-brainer for most everyone reading this):

  • NEVER send or discuss the news before the reporter has agreed to the embargo, otherwise it’s fair game for them to publish it
  • ALWAYS alert reporters to a leak – if the embargo has been broken, make sure you let everyone who agreed to it that they are free to publish their stories as well

Are there any other ideas that haven’t been mentioned? How can PR teams and agencies issue news in a way that benefits not only the client and reporter, but ultimately the audience the story is intended for?

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