Embargoes & Exclusives: The Ins & Outs of High Stakes PR

By on Monday, August 28, 2017

In journalism and public relations, a news embargo or press embargo is a request that the information or news provided not be published until a certain date and time, or before certain conditions are met.

Typically, an embargo is set up by emailing a news release to reporters with “embargoed until date/time” written on the release near the top and in bold (often right under or above the headline). It is also usually noted in the email subject line of the news release. And it is sometimes just offered verbally over the phone.

Some journalists view embargoes as helpful tools that give them a head start on a story. Journalists attending trade shows where many major product announcements may be made, can use embargoed releases to get ahead on their coverage.

Reporters trying to digest a complex report or research study may also benefit from an embargo – getting time to review data and information. In health and science journalism embargoes are common, as journals and news services distribute research findings in advance so journalists have time to review the materials, conduct interviews and write stories.

There is even a blog called “Embargo Watch” that delights in sharing what happens when am embargo is broken in the science field. It also poses a bigger question – asking if embargoes contribute to building more informed journalism or not (the jury is out on that one). Nature publishes its views on embargoes for authors, as does the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Of special note to those worried about embargoes causing leaks, NEJM notes: “A reporter may share an embargoed study with a source for comment. If this occurs, the reporter is responsible for ensuring that those with whom the article is shared agree to uphold the embargo.”

It’s important that the playing field be fair for all the media outlets participating in an embargo. You might brief some outlets ahead of others – but when it comes to publishing, everyone should have the same opportunity to publish the information after it is made publicly available.

I have occasionally gotten calls from reporters seeking an embargoed report that is rumored to be out on the grapevine. Some journalists view embargoes warily. They worry about competitors publishing before they do. And they know that public relations professionals have little recourse once a story is out. The offending journalist who broke the embargo can be excluded from future embargoed release lists (and so can their media outlet), but the reality is that if the reporter works for a media outlet that is valuable to the organization or business issuing the news, they may face no repercussions for breaking an embargo.

Other journalists simply find embargoes annoying. It can be a lot of trouble to keep track of an embargo and deal with the hassle of it. Occasionally news outlets will have policies on embargoes and their willingness to abide by them. It doesn’t help either when PR staffs use “embargo” for things that really are not time-sensitive or significant – every piece of news you issue cannot be under an embargo.

“Herd embargoes” where releases are emailed under embargo to literally hundreds or thousands of journalists – can be particularly despised. With many outlets involved, it’s too easy for a story to break early before the agreed upon time. The pressure to publish first online can be extreme and the more outlets involved in an embargo – the more likely there will be a leak.

Some outlets have responded that they will no longer respect embargoes. In the technology field, broken embargoes became such a problem in 2008 that TechCrunch vowed it would not observe embargoes any longer. In 2009, PR News reported that the Wall Street Journal would no longer honor embargoes unless it was granted an exclusive, because breaking embargoes was becoming too common. Embargoes are still used today but it’s smart to research in advance what an outlet’s policies are.

I advise clients to research the outlets they want to send information to in advance and to talk about why they really want or need an embargo. Do not just use a huge list pulled out of Cision/Vocus or Meltwater. Go through the list line by line and pick carefully. Plan ahead so you can give reporters enough time to get information ready before the embargo day and time. The goal of an embargo is to generate informed coverage – so 24 hours in advance may not be enough time – unless your tidbit of information is so juicy (or short so it’s not a hassle) reporters will instantly drop everything to create a story.

The exclusive. Sometimes it makes sense to issue select information early to just one reporter at a media outlet. This is known as granting an exclusive. For the reporter given an exclusive, you might also make select people available early for interviews before the news is issued, or offer a draft report or other information to aid the reporter working on an exclusive.

People have lots of reasons for giving exclusives. Perhaps you are convinced that only that reporter at that media outlet can do a good job on this particular story. Or you know that people who need to pay attention to your story will be more likely to notice if, it’s in that particular outlet or publication. Perhaps you are trying to cultivate a good relationship with the reporter and want to give him or her extra time ahead of competitors because you want to work with the reporter on something else down the road.

If you are the subject of a scandal or a matter of public interest who just wants to talk to one person (and get it over with), an exclusive may help you and your situation. For a subject of intense media interest, an exclusive can burst the bubble of interest by having your story show up once. If it’s done well, then it deflates the other outlets who might pursue you. But the media outlet must be big enough for it to matter, and the reporter should be someone you trust. Timing is key – if it’s too long since your story became public – this strategy can backfire – drawing more attention to you now – than you want.

I have used this strategy in the past when advising people in difficult circumstances, and while their situations were so challenging they had no truly positive options or choices available to them – in one case, doing a major front page exclusive with a top five newspaper deflated media interest in their terrible situation and gave them a year of privacy to deal with the things that had happened to them that shouldn’t have. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to buy time.

Setting up an exclusive is typically best done by phone or in person, in the morning (or early in the reporter’s shift when they are less likely to be on immediate deadline). You might offer the information “on background” (read more about what this means) and stipulate that the news cannot be broken before a certain time.

There are some risks with embargoes and exclusives – and the stakes can be quite high. Here are a few of the challenges involved.

It only takes one mis-timed report – to mess up your neatly scripted public announcement plan. Realize that if one media outlet breaks the embargo or somehow gets ahead of your promised exclusive and publishes first, your news will be out early. Other reporters will likely break the embargo too, if someone else publishes first. The more news outlets involved, the more likely this will happen. Expect a few annoyed calls from journalists. And if someone publishes ahead of a reporter you had promised an exclusive (perhaps they got information from another source or a leak), then you can expect for that reporter and his her outlet to be very upset.

It can either strengthen, or completely devastate your relationship with the media. Executed well and according to plan, embargoes and exclusives can deepen your relationships with reporters and the outlets they serve – these relationships bank in trust. A bungled embargo or exclusive can strain those relationships.

Be cautious with bloggers. Bloggers who do not have backgrounds in journalism may not know what an embargo means and may not abide by requests for information to be held in confidence until a certain date and time. Be even more cautious with an exclusive.

Timing is key. For an embargo and an exclusive, you want to release the information early enough that reporters have time to do their work, conduct interviews, review materials, etc. At the same time, the more people who know about something, the more likely the beans will spill. Ideally an embargo should be issued at least 2-5 days in advance. An exclusive may involve days, or even weeks, of advance work

The cat can be let out of the bag – to other organizations and even adversaries. Reporters who are writing about the topic under embargo may talk with sources to get quotes who are outside of your organization or business. On some issues this may not matter, but for some it really can be a problem. If you trust the reporter(s) you are working with – and calling a source is really going to be a problem (e.g. the potential source could quickly maneuver in a day or two to make your about to be filed lawsuit irrelevant) make that concern known to the reporter.

Other voices may chime in. The involvement of other agencies or organizations may be a positive for the organization issuing the embargo, or a negative. It can take attention away from you, add a chorus of critics, or bolster support for you.

If your organization is impacted by an embargoed report or an impending announcement being issued by someone else, getting a call from a journalist in advance, gives you time to formulate a response before the news is out publicly. This can be a major public relations advantage, as you are now ahead of the curve (by a little bit) instead of behind it when the story breaks.

In closing, my feeling is that success with embargoes and exclusives – all boils down to good old-fashioned public relations: relationships with journalists. Research carefully who you involve in an embargo or offer an exclusive to. Always work with reporters you trust and know well. It’s also important you know the publications you are pitching. Know what their deadlines are and what their publishing cycle is. These issues may influence your embargo or exclusive and its success.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your projectreview our portfoliosign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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