Are Press Embargoes Dead?

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Embargoes, once a valued tool used by most press relations-oriented PR professionals, are dead. Those who attempt to use them today are asking for trouble—or worse. Some who bemoan the demise of embargoes blame bloggers, but the real culprits predate the bloggers and strike at the heart of the 24/7 Internet-fueled endless news cycle.

Embargoes were long used by PR professionals who sought to "prime the pump" on coverage by giving selected reporters advance word on a news announcement—with the agreement that the reporters wouldn't publish until after the announcement went public. This would help ensure favorable coverage—and would give the reporter time to research and write about the topic.

Here's a classic example of how they once worked:

Several years ago, I pitched an embargoed story to a reporter from The Wall Street Journal. He agreed to respect the embargo—he didn't leak the story or rush to publish before I made the coordinated, formal announcement—yet he researched the underlying news story and wrote his own take on it, waiting for the ball to go up. As scheduled, we dropped the announcement at midnight on a Tuesday; at 12:01 a.m. that same Tuesday morning, The Wall Street Journal popped their very detailed story online (it also made the morning printed version), making them the clear winners in the sweepstakes to be the first to publish major news. In this example, the embargo worked—I got a reporter interested, and he wrote an excellent article timed to hit the streets only moments after I made my formal announcement. I won—I got the coverage. He won—he got a big jump on all of his competitors at The New York Times and Washington Post.

However, although that particular incident happened just a few years ago, it now seems almost like a quaint fable from a more innocent, long-ago time. Today, embargoes are dead, thanks in part to bloggers (who routinely ignore embargoes, making a mockery of this time-honored journalistic convention), but there are other reasons as well.

Embargoes were dead long before bloggers arrived.

They were already dying even as the 24/7 cable news cycle was just being born, heralded with the advent of Matt Drudge—along with the less public, and more than a bit grudging, acceptance by major news media that the Internet was a growing source of "news" for a significant market segment, a trend that began more than a decade ago.

Embargoes were already dying when "news" in Silicon Valley was measured in nanosecond timeframes and when literally hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital money and IPO funds rode on who had the best, latest, and most dramatic "news"—and when the media competed on the emerging Silicon CEO's own 24/7 working lifestyle.

By the time "social media" emerged to reshape the post-9/11 Internet, the embargo was already dead...but the "social media" put the final nails into the embargo's coffin. Angry leakers no longer had to find a sympathetic reporter with his or her own axe to grind; the disaffected employees, stockholders, clients, or customers—or underhanded competitors—could just go ahead and post their often-distorted versions of the news themselves, usually anonymously and often with tremendous impact.

And they did. And they do. Today's corporate and organizational media PR professional is no longer looking for ways to schedule the release of news; he or she is struggling to stay ahead of the tidal flow of unauthorized news leaks.

When anybody could (and did) post news on places like MySpace, YouTube, or Internet bulletin boards frequented by angry investors, and when bloggers, podcasters, and private individuals with multi-thousand-name email push lists (among others) could break news on their own (usually at somebody else's expense), embargoes became both dead and immaterial.

Add to this the fact that increasing numbers of editors and reporters have blogs or email push-zines of their own and routinely "scoop" their own publications—generally with management's blessing. In fact, it was very likely a reporter who leaked the biggest story of the decade to the first of the major Internet news sources.

The Monica Lewinsky story broke on Drudge a decade ago, literally hours after Newsweek put a long-term hold on Michael Isikoff's in-depth exploration of a presidential sex scandal. There's no proof, but "informed assumptions" point to Isikoff as the frustrated leaker. However, anybody at Newsweek with a grudge against the editor (or against President Clinton) could have leaked this story to Drudge. The point is clear: the Internet has made it possible for anybody to leak anything—and with all records now kept in digital format, anybody with access to those records can leak "the real thing." Against "the real thing," there are few PR defenses—and no point in trying to embargo or schedule the release of volatile breaking news.

Since the Lewinsky scandal made Drudge a national name, internal sources with grudges or agendas are all acting like presidential administration officials (people who leak sensitive information when it suits them to push their own agendas, usually at the then-current president's expense). What was once common only in Washington has now invaded America's version of "Fleet Street." Members of the media are constantly getting great tips, leaks, leads, back-door documents, etc., and then using them to create news. This creates a dilemma for PR people who have to both anticipate—and defend against—these kinds of news-generating leaks.

If, as a media-relations PR professional, you don't put volatile news out yourself now (while you can still control it), trust that if this news is really newsworthy—hence, "worthy" of an embargo—it will be leaked...and used.

For all these reasons, the embargo is dead. Its demise began with the rise of Matt Drudge a decade ago, and the final stake through the heart has come from the rise of blogs as a legitimate alternative news source over the past three to five years. PR people used to controlling the release of information following more genteel rules need to take note. The embargo is dead, the 24/7 endless news cycle lives, and there are people out there who really are out to get you. Act accordingly.

About the Author:

Ned Barnett has been in PR/marcom for 35-plus years, focused primarily on high-tech and startup businesses and products, crisis PR, investor relations, issue advocacy, and promoting authors and publishers. He has published nine books on PR and marketing communications, has taught courses at four colleges, and currently writes a monthly column on crisis PR for IABC.

In 1978, Barnett was the youngest-ever person accredited by PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person named PR and Marketing Fellow by the American Hospital Association. In addition, he is the only person to earn four consecutive MacEachern Awards, and in 2001, he won a PRSA Silver Anvil.

But there's more to Barnett than great PR and marcom. He also writes novels and frequently appears on The History Channel as a mil-tech expert. His wife, also a writer, had a novel released in 2004; together, they have written a screenplay that is currently in development.
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