It's easy to break an embargo when you don't know when it is

29 April 2007

Mike Arrington of TechCrunch has gone on the offensive having been on the receiving end of complaints about his site apparently not running stories unless they are exclusives and of repeatedly breaking embargoes. There is good news and bad news with this situation.

The good news is that, if you are on the receiving end of these complaints, you are the outlet to watch for a certain kind of story. And, if you like reading about oddly named Web 2.0 mash-up businesses, what better place to go than TechCrunch? The bad news is that you get a reputation for unfair dealing, although I doubt whether this actually matters in the real world, for reasons I'll explain below. However, if you are doing any coverage of startups, you will be dealing with this issue day in, day out. It, unfortunately, goes with the territory. It is part of the reason why I have come to loathe doing startup-related things: you find yourself horse-trading more than researching for a bunch of non-stories about companies most of which will have been wiped off the face of the planet in less than five years.

Arrington argues that TechCrunch is the victim of PRs doing a bit of double-dealing. The PR's client settles on a date for a launch of some kind - the various media outlets get interviews ahead of this launch date, having agreed to an embargo date and time. Then it all gets a bit fuzzy. The client, the PR or both may have decided that it's worth giving a newspaper or a website an exclusive on the same story. So, they ring up the editor responsible for the section and provide an earlier date for the embargo. What happens next is the problem - when the other outlets realise that they obeyed an embargo that didn't really exist, they complain. The PR then may tell them that the paper with the early story "broke the embargo" in a "what can you do, who can you turn to?" tone of voice. Arrington is right. This happens.

It is relatively unusual for everyone to be offered interviews ahead of time and then watch as another paper appears to broke the embargo. 'Exclusives' are as often as not low-value announcements that the PR knows no-one will take up unless there is something else on offer. It's one reason why I tend to avoid 'exclusives' provided by companies unless it happens to come as a by-product of something that is otherwise interesting.

With many of these announcements, the exclusive is timed to coincide with the release going on general distribution. No-one, apart from the paper with the exclusive, does an interview. Generally, no-one else cares when the story does appear, although it will be a craptacular day for the PR if it turns out the story was more interesting than they assumed. This tends to lead to "the dog ate the press release" kind of excuse: "Oh we sent it out last Thursday, it must have got caught in the spam filter. You were definitely on our list for that one."

There are four general scenarios that lead up to the "broken embargo" story. One is that the paper getting the exclusive does not know that other people are being briefed ahead of a different embargo. Generally, as an editor, you're not too bothered about when other people get something, just as long as it's not ahead of you. The idea that any embargo got broken comes as a bit of a surprise.

The second is the result of horse-trading - this is where PRs will, most often, trot out the broken embargo excuse. You are most likely to see this on a weekly print publication. What happens is that the PR discusses the embargo and you, as editor, say: "That's no good to me. I want to run it on this day or I don't care about the story." The PR has a choice: say "yes, that's OK" or know that this particular paper won't touch the release or the interview with a bargepole. You could argue that the paper did indeed break the embargo but the tacit agreement of the PR suggests otherwise.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that, for every client and every announcement, there is a size of circulation or reach for which the PR will roll over. The open question is whether the decision to roll over damages the PR's or client's reputation enough to cause problems down the line. However, it's nowhere near as bad as scenario four.

The third is not as common as it could be. Sometimes you just forget about the embargo or you give the story to someone else on the team without telling them about it. And sometimes, you actually don't know about the embargo. The last sounds strange but I've been there. If I do an interview, I will often completely ignore the release and the presentation - as long as I am confident enough in my notes and the interviewee was clear, I will go with that. If the only time an embargo is mentioned is on one of those bits of paper, that's tough luck. I have had conversations along the lines of:

"Why did you break the embargo?"
"What embargo?"
"The embargo mentioned on the press release."
"There was an embargo date?...Where?...Oh, there."

However, there was the time when the embargo date was transmitted psychically: the story was the result of a more general interview which was, apparently, to have been issued on a release some time later. There is a belief among some PRs that journalists are unwilling to write some stories, even from face-to-face interviews, without some form of release. Do not believe them. They are misguided, even if experience does suggest to them otherwise. Similarly, some PRs believe you can impose an embargo unilaterally. Don't try that at home. You might be dismayed by the results.

Then you have scenario number four. This generally happens with embargoes that move something like a full week sometime during the round of interviews (and I've seen one move by two weeks - this was pretty much pre-Interweb, you understand). It's very difficult to find the root cause of this one as it's in no-one's interest to explain what really happened. However, you can usually bank on this one being the result of someone panicking at some time and taking drastic action to ensure that a favoured paper does not get stiffed by a competitor. In the cases that this one has gone the wrong way for me, I have never, ever forgotten the name of the client, and not in a good way. Oddly, I have forgotten who the PR was in all but one of the cases. So, when people ask why PRs get away with some tricks, I think I can explain: all the consequences descend on the client. However, it can also be the client's fault.

What seems to happen is that the round of briefings starts with a set date for an embargo. Then, someone starts to think that one paper won't, for some reason, honour the embargo. So, in order to prevent the relationship going sour elsewhere, they shift the embargo forward to the point where it is almost impossible for the 'suspect' paper to break. Enjoy dealing with that paper if turns out they were planning to honour the embargo. Think nuclear winter with extra frostiness.

The one that is truly burned into my memory is the launch of some vapourware that involved a trek to Berkshire to a startup's offices. I can't remember why I agreed to it as the product was vapourware of the purest form - it did finally arrive, but it took a while and what finally appeared had a rather vague connection to the original plan. On arrival at the office, the PR presented me with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I handed it straight back and asked for her to call for a cab. She was a bit surprised - presumably expecting a bit of grumble but, ultimately, compliance. She asked, why? "Because there's no point in me staying here, is there?" I replied. "I'm not signing it."

There was a bit of running around as they tried to work out what to do. After a bit of hurried whispering with the CEO, it turned out that a verbal agreement to an embargo (which I had already done over the phone) was just fine after all, or so it seemed. I did the interview, went off, did a bit of background and prepared a story for an inside technology page that would have run after the embargo date in print. As that page started rolling through production, I got an email from the PR saying that the embargo had moved forward. The next day, we saw that the main competitor had run the story (the publication dates of the two were skewed by two or three days). I asked for the story to be pulled - I had a backup that could be used. I think I wrote two pieces about the company in the last ten years, both asides within other, larger items.

So, who loses in the embargo game? It depends on who you are. You can generally tell whether PRs are genuinely bothered about papers breaking embargoes. There is an easy way to deal with it: don't offer to brief ahead of an embargo. The fact that you get supposedly serial offenders should tell you a great deal about what is actually going on. Personally, I'd cast embargoes into the outer darkness, but I don't think that's going to happen soon.

7 Comments

NDAs are to all intent and purpose meaningless. Journos don't like the implication that they'll break an embargo, and if a PR ever tried to enforce a breach it would completely screw-up the relationship between the PR and journo. As you say, if a journo has a reputation for breaking embargos, PRs should delay briefing them until after the break date. Simple.

I'm not sure you can assume that a company would never try to enforce an NDA. You need to read the contract carefully - most of the ones I've seen are based on engineering NDAs with almost nothing changed. There is no date on the contract that says when the non-disclosure period is over: the writers of the contract assume you are dealing with trade secrets.

In effect, you are bound by the contract perpetually. Only things that are in the public domain can be disclosed - if you learn something during the interview that the company then decides it wants out of the public eye, it has one useful stick to beat you with. Would a company go that far? I think the probability is low and the validity of the contract could be challenged in court ("So Mr Smiggins, you invited the defendant into your office for the purposes of publicising Product X but in doing so told the defendant that he could not not tell anyone about it. Could you explain your thinking?"). But it's enough to convince me to avoid these things like the plague. I don't care how many times people say "it's only a formality", I don't see the need to entangle myself in any more legal documents than absolutely necessary.

There is another intriguing legal subtlety for freelancers: simply by writing up a story for a paper, you are breaking the terms of the NDA. It's one of my favourite reasons for not signing other than "I'm not going to."

Embargoes are absolutely essential in broadcasting, of course, and almost always respected. How else would you fill up a breakfast radio programme?

If embargoes were used by PR companies to deliver benefit to the recipient editor (i.e. truly first access in the context of the language and audience of the associated media) then I don't think that most European editors would have an issue with them.

Unfortunately, the US approach to embargo usage, which is focussed on allowing the PR agency to 'control' the message dissemination, is not, in our experience, generally appreciated by European editors. After all you are asking editors to do your job as a PR agency for you....for free!

Its an on-going challenge we have when working with US led promotional campaigns, is how to work within the US led embargo culture but translate its use for appropriate and effective use in Europe.

As is often the case in marketing, less is more; Use embargoes sparingly in Europe if you want them to work to your clients and the editors benefit.

Ben,

A good point. I guess that with consumer stories, some embargoes are tuned to the needs of the breakfast shows, which happen to coincide (for the moment) with the dailies. I don't have enough (or any) experience to know what happens there. But I can see a tension emerging as more newspapers take the digital first option.

I almost cited government stuff as an example where embargoes generally don't get in the way all that much. However, the timescales on those are so short (generally overnight or having hacks locked in a room to cull usable quotes from an official report a couple of hours before it gets released) that it's not really in anyone's interest to mess with the system. The only government ones of any duration I can think of right now are for the Queens Awards and, again, there's not a great deal of point in anyone trying to get an 'exclusive' on those.

Geoff,

Some people find an apparently easy way around it - they just issue the release in Europe after the embargo lifts and then pretend that the US somehow benefits from a timewarp effect - "Wow, you did an interview and wrote it up in minus two hours". The best ones are the releases that turn up hours or even days after they have appeared on BusinessWire. I appreciate that in many instances the overseas PRs see the release for the first time at this point too.

I've not found a satisfactory answer to this one. To get parity, you have to get in on the embargo circuit. I console myself with the thought that it is about parity, not about joining the embargo circus (although that is what it is). One thing that came as a surprise to me was that US companies regard pre-briefing in the way they do as a treat for hacks rather than a necessity to get more than two paras tucked away in the darkest corners of a page or website.

You have noted one of the reasons why I, and probably a lot of other people, dislike embargoes: we are simply being co-opted into a sales programme. That feels uncomfortable. On top of that you have the issue that embargoes (aside from very short ones) mess with your production system. No-one designs a production system to cater for embargoes that extend beyond a production cycle. With most editorial departments now having to deal with mixed cycles, the situation got a lot worse.

Some excellent points above, and useful to get journalists' views (I'm a PR).

One other thing that's not yet been mentioned is that so many readers get their news direct from company press releases nowadays, especially in B2B and tech PR.

So, with pre-briefings, the PRs are often hoping to get the publications to write their news so that it appears at roughly the same time as the press release comes out on the wire. This aims to be helpful to let publications get their news out quickly.

And, yes, clients that try and move embargo dates after the briefings is no fun for the PR either!!