Embargoes in the New Age of Public Relations (Not Dead Yet)

12/17/08 UPDATE: With Michael Arrington at TechCrunch deciding not to honor embargoes anymore, I have been bringing up this example as how a good embargo can work– and why.


This week, I had the pleasure of working with my team at SHIFT Communications and our client, The Christian Science Monitor, to release the very big news of The Monitor’s impending change of format to Web-based supplemented by a new weekly print magazine. To read more about that news, start here. My team at SHIFT did a fantastic job in pitching, as I have come to expect. This opportunity was made all the more fun as part of my past professional life was as a producer for Monitor Radio in the 1990s.

Back to the public relations topic: one of the tools the team, both at The Monitor and at SHIFT, employed was an old chestnut: the embargo.

“What, an embargo?” you say. “Didn’t those die with the Internet? Do reporters, much less bloggers, keep embargoed news anymore?”

Well, yes– in fact, some folks in journalist-land showed surprise that the embargo held- one, Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher, was one of those who agreed to the embargo, fully expecting someone else to break it (“Wow, some Reporters Can Still Keep a Secret“). Another, the snarky blog Jossip, called the successful embargo “the most brilliant bullshit ever” (thanks– I think).

The death of the embargo has been widely and prematurely reported for many years. During the Internet 1.0 boom, the rise of online news outlets led to paranoia that those Web sites would break any and all news upon receipt, thus bringing down the embargo. As blogging rose in the last few years, that fear became more pronounced as a number of outlets were considered to be “non-journalistic” in many ways, leading all us PR types to question whether they even knew what an embargo was. And sure, tech blogs have broken embargoes- but so have print magazines, newspaper and broadcast. The fears are unfounded in that the rise of online media, and now blogs, is not the death of the embargo. Untrustworthy publishers (well, in a sense) and “fake news” are more to blame for the death of individual embargoes, when they are broken.

I have had tech blogs like TechCrunch and Centernetworks honor embargoes. I have had conversations with tech bloggers who were concerned about the breaking of embargoes by competitors when they were trying to be honorable, and what could they do about the general situation? I have had IT weeklies break embargoes and scrambled to make things right with everybody.

So what makes an embargo successful?

  • Real news- Don’t use an embargo to try to hike coverage of unimportant “fake” news. A legitimate, big story is worth waiting for, and trustworthy reporters/bloggers/whatever will not want to blow a story with a trustworthy news source on fear they won;t get spoon-fed the next story.
  • Trust your sources- Only send embargoed news to publications you explicitly trust to hold on to it. That knowledge comes from experience, both first-hand and from your peers. If you;re not sure, ask around– then hold back if you have to- better to be safe.
  • Keep in contact right through the embargo deadline, and be ready in case someone does break it. As you see from Joe Strupp’s piece, even those journalists who take embargoes are skeptical of their peers’ ability to keep them. Keep in contact with everyone who has the news, reminding them of the time as well as fact-checking and providing materials. If someone does break the embargo, Have the press release ready to drop on a moment’s notice, and be ready to dial fast and release everyone else from their embargoes.

    Another method I employed once was when a reporter got wind of news early and was sure to run with it first, we were able to hold back some materials so that the later publications had something extra and valuable to use (in this case, interviews with customers). That time, it worked out for everyone.

Is the embargo dead? Far from it. What do you think?

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