The Future of the Embargo

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In media and blogger relations, PR typically wields two powerful tools to help boost the effectiveness of pitching and potential placement of news: the embargo and the exclusive.

In the case of an exclusive, a story is usually packaged prior to official release for one particular writer, fully understanding their style, nuances, and audience. If the story is accepted, it is not pitched to any other media outlets until after the story runs. The benefit for PR is that it can bank on the publishing of a guaranteed, high profile story. The advantage for the reporter is that they maintain a position of authority on that particular event. The con for PR, is that usually, other media properties will forgo participating in the round of coverage because it quickly become old news.

The news business is similar to buying a new car. It’s immediately worth less the moment you drive it off of the lot. Once the press release crosses the wire or a reporter/blogger publishers the story, the news loses its value. Thus, news boasts its greatest leverage prior to public dissemination.

Embargoes on the other hand, are tied to newsworthy stories that are presented to a series of top newsmakers simultaneously before its official release with the intention of negotiating and coordinating an orchestrated release across multiple platforms concurrently. The advantage for PR is that it can architect a successful, expansive, and amplified release – giving more weight to the announcement as it’s distributed. Participating reporters benefit by contributing to a breaking story and creating the perception that each reporter was on top of something buzzworthy. On the other hand, journalists and bloggers can also feel the sting of participating if one writer should publish even one minute early.

This has become an increasingly competitive practice among online reporters trying to scoop each other to give the appearance that they broke the story and that others followed. Also, there can be a sense of animosity generated if the story was pitched profusely to colleagues and competitors based on quantity and not necessarily the quantity of quality. In many cases, the corral of participating influencers can and will become uncontrollable as it increases its circumference. Someone will inevitably break the embargo. Once that happens, chances are, that the rest of the group will kill the post and never run it, harboring bitterness against PR as a result.

Personally, I employ a less is more strategy, one where I work with a select few who represent varying reach, but ultimately impact the right people who are truly looking for relevant news. In my world, everything starts with expectation setting and management, as I no longer find value in casting a wider net, only to eventually shovel excuses to one side or the other of reporters/bloggers or company executives “when” something doesn’t live up to unsaid presumptions.

With embargoes, they are highly effective for all parties when practiced strategically. At the same time however, reporters and PR professionals who regularly abuse them, whether or not its intentional, set the stage for a series of boycotts and debates that continue to unfold in the public spotlight and damage relations between media and PR with every step of the way.

Although, I have yet to hear a backlash against exclusives except from unhappy executives who “always” believe that their news is consequential and disruptive regardless of reality.

But, PR, unfortunately, is perpetually working against a common dilemma; no matter what we achieve, it’s never enough. Nonetheless, PR in many cases, works against itself.

Michael Arrington, publisher of TechCrunch, one of the world’s leading and most influential blogs, has publicly decried embargoes claiming that the editorial team will no longer honor them. As a result, he dedicates a significant share of real estate to explain his position by chastising those who fortify his decision and perception (disclosure: I contribute to TechCrunch).

The Wall Street Journal also recently issued a statement recently that its reporters will only entertain exclusives moving forward and that for all intents and purposes, the embargo is dead to WSJ reporters.

What’s at stake here is a sacred bond between reporter/blogger and PR. The explicit and implicit trust that exists between the two sides will either grow stronger or completely unravel with every embargo and exclusive – depending on its outcome.

In the world of embargoes and exclusives, the risk can be greater than the reward and unfortunately, PR is usually caught holding the smoking gun when orchestration collapses.

The Future of News

While I was traveling in support of the new book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations, which also addresses issues surround new media relations and embargoes, I missed an important discussion in San Francisco dedicated to the exploration of the embargo’s possible future. The expert panel included Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher, Dylan Tweney of Wired, Mark Glaser of PBS/Media Shift, Damon Darlin of the New York Times, and was moderated by Sam Whitmore of Media Survey.

Rafe Needleman of CNET/CBS and Paul Boutin of VentureBeat/NY Times participated from the audience.

I would have loved to participate on that panel. Even though it was hosted by global PR firm Waggener Edstrom, it appeared to be a soapbox for a one-sided view of a much larger issue that effects two sides of the news process – media and PR

Wired’s Dylan Tweney perhaps shared the night’s most interesting perspective on embargoes,, and as such, embodies a sentiment that reverberates throughout the media industry, “Embargo is Latin for F you!”

The New York Times Darlin said that embargoes co-opt the media. More importantly, he acknowledged that the Times often accepts embargoes because they ensure reporters don’t miss a story and that an inherent benefit is that they have time to do a thorough job.

Mark Glaser on the other hand, maintains a much bleaker outlook on the embargo, “I think they will become extinct.”

In fact, he believes that all journalists should reject them.

Tom Foremski partially agrees. In a post written prior to the event, he shared that even though the accepts embargoes, he often forgets or loses interest in them over time and as such, he believes, “embargoes don’t seem to work anymore.”

I disagree wholeheartedly. In fact, embargoes are powerful and effective for all parties when coordinated properly and centered on information that is indeed newsworthy.

As David Needle of Internet News reported, Dylan Tweney summed up the sentiment on embargoes in a positive light, “While most embargoes aren’t exclusive, he said the embargo process puts a story on the same continuum. Even if you’re one of 25 others getting the story, that’s worth something.”

Rafe Needleman is no stranger to the topic of PR #Fail. He maintains a separate blog, PR Pro Tips, and even published a recent book dedicated to documenting what doesn’t work, while also providing advice on how to practice PR in a way that actually helps him do his job more effectively.

He discussed the need for obtaining an NDA in advance of sharing news under an assumed embago.

In the process of corralling reporters, many make the mistake of sending the request for an NDA or agreement to the embargo along with the news. This is a mistake that is more common than not and one that hits a little too close to home. Someone on our team discovered this hard way and the pitch was rightfully called out because technically, the news was shared before we received commitment to the NDA – thus an embargo was never established.

Needleman wisely advised in his PR Pro Tips blog, “If you send an unsolicited email with an embargoed press release in it, we consider that fair game to cover immediately. Get your NDAs agreed to before you send them.”

Expectation Chain or Chained by Expectations

At the center of this quandary is the news release and the expectations that govern its pickup and distribution. While many place blame on the resulting tactics associated with pitching and placing news, the true source of the problem is the expectations of those companies and executives responsible for generating the news and ultimately the marketers and communications professionals who report to them. The expectation chain also continues beyond the c-suite as they also report to a board of directors and advisors, stakeholders, and investors. To them, it’s not about less is more, they’re goals are fully rooted in a “more is more” mentality rooted in a prevailing sense of entitlement. PR thus starts off from an almost losing position. The economy doesn’t help either…

Reporters and bloggers are also to blame for the inefficiencies and problems circling the embargo. While some have mistakenly published early, others have done so intentionally. There’s an advantage for doing so, traffic.

The Race to Authority: Content is Still King

At the San Francisco event, Mark Glaser didn’t buy the excuse that being one minute ahead of everyone else is important to page views. But if you are considered the lead in a breaking story by the public, it makes all the difference in the world – namely bragging rights and a much more profound case for selling sponsorships and ads. In the tech world, there’s also a visual element to the lead story. Techmeme, for example, usually rewards the first to publish a story that sparks a news trend, positioning following stories beneath the lead. You can bet that Techmeme sends a greater volume of traffic to the lead versus supporting posts. And, of course there’s Twitter. First to break an interesting story usually benefits from a wave of retweets.

Paul Boutin compared the embargo to a horse race. If we line up horses at the track, it’s in his best interest to break early.

And, Boutin also takes a hard nose position against those who break earlier and beat him to market. Even though many PR pros try to salvage coverage among those who then choose not to write a story because it’s already public, Boutin believes that there isn’t any value to a deeper story or new angle, “there’s no second chance to write a deeper story, speed counts.”

As Dylan Tweney from wired observed and then echoed by Rafe Needleman via Twitter, “The stories that get the most pageviews are almost never embargoed stories.”

But reporters and bloggers aren’t the only force to dictate the future of news and embargoes. PR also has a choice in who they decide to align with on important stories. Even though there is an unnecessarily great emphasis on the volume and mass of coverage (H.I.T.S. as KD Paine defines as How Idiots Track Success). In the immediate future, activity and influence will count for everything as PR becomes accountable for contributing to the bottom line of business, not just publicity. Some more advanced communications teams are already measuring the activity that derives from each post/article and it absolutely determines who is invited to participate in embargoes and stories in the future. Practiced well enough over time, PR fundamentally invests in the authority of chosen individuals and organizations.

The power and allure of a-list blogs and reporters is undeniable, but PR cannot ignore or overlook the value of the Magic Middle, the class of bloggers that earn between 1,000 and 50,000 monthly unique visitors. It is the Magic Middle that out numbers the a-list in reach and volume when compared to the overall blogosphere, and for that, provide an almost endless array of opportunities in and around news and trends.

However, if page views are of concern, then what can be considered timely news on one day could also be packaged as a feature or trend story in the future. I am not in the news business, but I do report on news. However, if I were to publish stories as news is breaking, I would surely lose out in the race for visibility and authority compared to those better at this game than I. Instead, if something is interesting, I will file it away and revisit it at a time when I can perform deeper analysis and thus share interesting and newly timed and relevant perspective. Page views are then incredibly more abundant. Thus I believe that Boutin and Tweney may consider rethinking their stance especially if the story is of particular substance to their audience.

The reality is that embargoes are an important and fundamental part of the news ecosystem. They mustn’t lose their stature. As such, it is the responsibility of PR to use them only when warranted and not relegate them merely as part of a day-to-day tactic in the process of PR pitching.

Current and future relationships with media are defined by our investment in collaboration with every news release, now and over time. This is a long-term play and there is no value or reward for practicing PR through shortsighted and insular campaigns.

In the end, PR earns the trust and relationships that it deserves.

Please also read:

The State of PR: You are the future

PR Doesn’t Stand for Press Release

The Art and Science of Blogger Relations

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  • http://twitter.com/cmh5142 Cassandra Hallacker

    #C473

  • http://www.myercommunications.com/ Laurie Myer

    Brian – this is a really great perspective on this issue. I take your point that there is still a role for the embargo and I like your approach of selecting a few candidates in differing areas to work with on a developed-relationship basis. I have, for the most part, stayed away from embargoes as I've been burned more than once by contacts who broke early to position themselves as the leader while saying “oops-my mistake.” I will consider your approach next time the opportunity comes up.

  • http://twitter.com/norwind norwind

    Thank you for providing the details and analysis of the “embargo” information situation and its strategic place and time in the news/media eletromagnetic spectrum.

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  • LA

    Hi Brian,

    Great synopsis of the state of things w.r.t. the old embargo.

    Having been caught in the middle of this horse race personally, and recently, I must say that we as practitioners are being called upon more and more to help our clients see the difference between quantity and quality. Taking the right story to the right audience (publisher) is key. I tend toward a more transparent approach, sharing the news or updates as they come, and for those who express interest first, get the story first. Simple. If you don't respond to me in a timely manner, I cannot get you the information in a timely manner. So, in a sense, some of these seasoned writers are “scooping” themselves.

    Above all, trust remains a primary public relations tenant. We are here to help.

    To the media I say: ask us for what you need/want, and we can work with the companies you want to talk to so that you get what you need/want, and when (and don't get pestered with the stuff you DO NOT want ;-) To the client I say: trust that the feedback we give you is real – we are getting it strait from our closest media friends and we are trying to help them do their job, not make it harder. You might not get the THE headline you want, exactly when you want it, but over time if you respect the process you may very well find yourselves in the respected (and coveted) go-to seat.

    -LA

  • http://twitter.com/KaryD Kary Delaria

    Thank you for this insight, Brian.

    Frustrated with “traditional” pr tactics, I'll admit that until reading this, I was a PR pro who would have said embargos don't have much of a place in the online landscape. Now, I'm thinking differently. When I read your words, “PR earns the trust and relationships that they deserve,” I realized that my line of thinking is only contributing to the idea that PR pros should not be trusted, or, their pitch not valued.

    Recently, for a client event promotion, we sent information to core bloggers/reporters in advance of public release of the information. We didn't call it an embargo, but at its core, that is what it was. And, it was effective due to the things you describe in this post – timely, targeted pitches to those with whom we had developed a relationship.

    Thank you for making me take a new look at a PR tactic about which I'd grown cynical.

  • http://blog.cuclispr.com/ Gina Cuclis

    Your headline that this is a PR crisis is ridiculous. It's nothing new that media organizations won't honor embargos. It's been that way since TV news became popular. Seasoned PR Pros who are strategic thinkers and know how to work with the media don't use embargos.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Gina, you are right, the debate honoring embargoes is not necessarily new, only broadened. However, if you follow this blog, you'll know two things, it's called “evolving pr crisis” because it is evolving and this is the latest chapter in the debate in regards to new media. And two, they're being used quite effectively right now by “strategic thinkers” – it's just a documentation of the state of engagement as it exists right now – especially among those influencers who do not adhere to traditional journalism. The back channel is increasingly persuasive.

  • http://www.gaiapr.com/ Laura Taylor

    Thanks, Brian. You always have some of value to say and embargoes are one of those topics that we approach differently depending on the situation. It's one of the toughest areas we all have to deal with regardless of time in the biz.

  • http://www.47project.com Rich Harris

    Brian – This is excellent. Thanks for posting. I've noticed the dynamic shifting big time here at trade shows like CES, etc.

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  • http://blog.monicaobrien.com Monica O'Brien

    Brian,

    This was so interesting for me not having a background in traditional PR. It seems like the price of breaking news is so much higher than the price of news in general. I don't necessarily blame TechCrunch for not honoring embargos – it doesn't actually benefit them to do so, because they have so much power on the internet at this point. (I know you seem to disagree with this.)

    I love that you mention the magic middle – I do think good spreads whether you push it through the elite or the magic middle. Any news that isn't viral in nature has less chance of getting heard. But if you can get enough of the magic middle to talk about you, you will get the influencers to notice.

    Thanks for the interesting post Brian!

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  • Ellen Porter

    One reason I hesitate, in this day and age to use an embargo unless the client REALLY wants us to, is the posting of copy the night before on newspaper websites. I've only had two clients who wanted us to issue a release with an embargo, and this became an issue for one of them.

  • Ellen Porter

    One reason I hesitate, in this day and age to use an embargo unless the client REALLY wants us to, is the posting of copy the night before on newspaper websites. I've only had two clients who wanted us to issue a release with an embargo, and this became an issue for one of them.

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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