Rethinking the embargo

The embargo is a strange beast. In essence, a contract between public relations people and journalists that says: "Here's the information for [what we think is] a great news story. But we've set [an often arbitrary] time delay for publishing this story and if you break it we'll get angry." Ok, so the above does a bit of a disservice to the embargo, but in this internet-centric world where any news organisation or website or blogger can, and often does, break the embargo, perhaps a rethink to the humble STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 00.01 WEDNESDAY line is necessary.

The embargo today still feels like a very traditional media concept (albeit one that still has a time and place) that, like smoking, is a hard habit to give up. Ostensibly, it still feels wedded to the pre-internet days and specifically tailored around print deadlines.

The journalists I've met and worked with have mixed feelings towards embargoes. One old tutor from my training days positively encouraged the breaking of embargoes, while another editor was fairly respectful of them as they believed that, in the long run, you'd get some good stories first from the PR as they knew you could be trusted.

Ultimately, though, embargo breaking leads to a weird situation. The press office are likely to get annoyed and, in the worst case, stop working with the media organisation for a period of time. But if the company really wants to work with said media organisation, there's little option but to start building up that relationship again.

But with the internet, it's never been easier to break an embargo. Hell, the material can make it from email account to the web in around 10 minutes if the journalist is so minded and feels there's worth in doing so.

And with no real evidence, other than increasingly common conversations with other PR people about embargo-breaking online, the gut feeling is that journalists and bloggers are increasingly disregarding the stern words at the top of the press release.

Now - admittedly basing this assumption on anecdotal evidence and then declaring it thus - if that is the case, the embargo needs a bit of a rethink.

Should we go as far to scrap the idea of the embargo [1]? Perhaps not completely. After all, the point of the embargo is, from a publicity point of view, to retain an element of control to the story. There are perhaps a couple of advantages to embargoing information:

  • Timing the embargoed information to coincide with something else - perhaps even to take the attention away from elsewhere.
  • Preparation time for journalists. Sometimes it doesn't hurt to give the media time to digest what they've read and produce something relevant for their audience, and this can actually enhance the coverage.
  • Co-ordinating an announcement that makes the nation's collective jaw drop. But, again, how easy is this in an online world?
  • Giving the embargoed material to a few trusted places so the announcement can be coordinated strategically.

But even with these (rather vague) exceptions, there's still an argument for doing away with the embargo. If you've got a jaw-dropping announcement, the chances are the collective journalism jaw will also drop, so why not just announce it there and then? More control, less chance of an early leak online.

And if the news isn't going to get jaws dropping, then perhaps that negates the very need for an embargo. Chances are that if you send it out in the middle of the day, it'll get filed in the 'to do' file, then make the papers the next day.

And if it's one of those wonderfully pointless surveys that flood into newsrooms on a regular basis with a stat that 76.2% of households in the South East would continue to use canned fruit in the event of a nuclear holocaust, an that tend to end up as space-filling churn, then may I humbly suggest that this news isn't so exciting that it needs to be sat on until a certain time. The world will, you suspect, keep turning.

But if you're still wedded to the idea of the embargo or want to give the journalist time to prepare, if there any way the embargo can work in a Web 2.0 environment.

The short answer is probably not. But the longer answer includes a maybe. The most draconian and time-heavy solution would be to lock the material behind a password protected area and include further password protection and lockdowns behind this to make it as hard as possibly the get the info out. This seems slightly too much effort on the part of the PR and irritation on the part of the journalist. Can't quite see a future for it myself.

The second idea goes back to one of the bullet points  - working with a few specific, trusted outlets - perhaps a couple of leading websites or a paper - and offering the information as an exclusive.

Again, it's not without its problems or dangers. The information better be good - good enough for organisation A wanting to have it, even under embargo, in the first place, and good enough for everywhere else to want to republish and not get annoyed that they weren't first in the queue.

In some respects, this is an approach that could find more success with bloggers than traditional media. Web 2.0 loves to share and if the right blogs are targeted, then there's the potential for a bit of a buzz.

But, again, the story has to be good enough to create a buzz in the first place. And it's not something I'd be especially fond of doing more than once in a blue moon. Web 2.0 loves linking and sharing, but doesn't like the feeling of being manipulated, which, done wrongly, this could be viewed as.

Is there a place for embargoes? Do we need them anymore? Could we work a more social media solution in via Social Media Press Releases? Or even wikis? Or is this just a pointless attempt to preserve something not needed? And do you have any thoughts on this that are more coherent than the above? I'll now throw this to the floor...

[1] Is the embargo dead? Oh, the irony, THE irony!