Is it Time to Place an Embargo on PR Embargoes?

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.

Under the heading of things that can be both a blessing and a curse, journalists and the PR people we work with are in agreement on one: embargoes. They can be a simple and fair way for a PR client to disseminate news about themselves to the media, or they can be a way to manipulate journalists into doing a story because they know everyone else is.

All sides of the debate about embargoes were aired one recent evening at a panel discussion in San Francisco that featured journalists from old and new media and an audience of more than 50 media and public relations professionals. The organizer of the event was Waggener Edstrom, the huge PR agency whose most famous client is Microsoft.

First, here’s a primer on embargoes, just so we’re all on the same page. When a company wants to get the word out about something it thinks is newsworthy it reaches out to reporters with whom it wants to share the news. In order for all media to get the story at the same time, the company imposes an embargo that the news can’t be reported until, say, 12:01 a.m. Eastern time on Monday.

The reporters who agree to the embargo are then entitled to an interview with key people from the company a few days ahead of time, called a prebrief. They may also be referred to industry analysts who’ve also been briefed who can provide some independent perspective on the news. Then the reporter can take his or her time writing the story with perhaps a little more thought, detail and insight than if they quickly rewrote the press release once it came out at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Sometimes, though, the embargo process fails.

“Embargo is from a Latin phrase which means ‘[to heck with] you,’” blurted Dylan Tweney, senior editor of Wired.com, the Web site of the high-tech magazine. (Use your imagination to fill in the real word in the brackets.) Tweney resents being forced to agree to embargoes in order to get the news.
Embargoes work — to get news out to readers in a timely fashion – except when they don’t work, Tweney said, and then provided examples of instances where he agreed to an embargo only to learn some other media outlet broke it and got the story out first. It happened twice within a few weeks on different stories handled by the same PR agency.

“I recognize both the utility and the anxiety and danger of embargoes,” added David Darlin, technology editor for the New York Times. While it can be a convenient way to report news, he also feels manipulated by the process.

“[The embargo] is a tool for PR people to co-opt the media to turn them into part of the PR apparatus,” said Darlin.

But the alternative to embargoes, which would be just putting the release on PR Newswire and only responding to reporters seeking interviews is impractical for the companies making the news, said Doug Free, public relations director for Microsoft’s operations in Silicon Valley.

“I can’t have my staff scrambling to take calls from 30 reporters,” said Free, from his seat in the audience. Using the embargo system sets up a more orderly process for arranging interviews ahead of time.

As the discussion continued, it became apparent that there remains some suspicion among reporters, PR people and their clients about who’s responsible for broken embargoes.

Sam Whitmore, founder of Media Survey, a consulting practice for tech PR people, and moderator of the discussion, listed what he thought were bogus “excuses” media gave for breaking embargoes, such as the story was posted by mistake, the embargoed story was mistaken for a non-embargoed story, there was time zone confusion about when the embargo lifts and the all purpose “I forgot.”

But Wired’s Tweney said embargoes are also broken by the client who, despite the PR agency’s efforts to control the embargo, leaks the news to a favored blogger or someone else who gets the jump on reporters who agreed to the embargo.

The debate ended 45 minutes later with no real consensus on how to fix the embargo dilemma, which with the expanding universe of media bloggers, corporate bloggers, PR bloggers, Twitterers and other new media sources, isn’t going away.

But both journalists and PR people agreed on one essential element for a fair embargo system: Trust.

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