The Complications of the News Embargo

The news embargo is a tricky tool to use right. The goal is to get more thoughtful, in-depth coverage of your news and/or event by giving reporters early access to the background information (for example, a press release, copy of a report, or interview) while still achieving your ideal publication date. The embargo is just a gentlemen's agreement that you're providing early access on the condition that the reporter/s will hold publication until after the embargo date.

Ryan Lawler has an article on Techcrunch about how a news embargo can go wrong for the organization trying to create the news -- and for the journalists covering it. In this case, a startup company held an event for reporters in advance of the public launch of their service. Whether intentionally or not, one of the news sites covering the event broke the embargo. By the time the company lifted the embargo, the other reporters were already twelve hours behind. On the web that's a lifetime, and as a result those reporters weren't inclined to write about "old news." So not only was the first story on the company's launch much earlier than they would have liked, it very well could have been the only story.

Today, the news embargo is like the prisoner's dilemma: you're asking journalists to bet that their colleagues won't break the agreement when they often have every incentive to do so. Nearly all reporters will honor an embargo almost all of the time, or at least intend to, but you can also run afoul of the mechanics of pre-scheduled posting and idle social media comments . In my opinion, the safest use of an embargo is to release background information for a press event no earlier than 24-hours beforehand. That way print reporters have a chance to do some background work and line up other sources, but even if the embargo is broken and the news comes out early, TV will still have an incentive to cover the event itself, if only for B-roll. An embargo also works best when as few people as possible are beholden to it, so if you have very few reporters who are going to be interested in the story anyway because of it specificity of interest, giving them early access can be both safe and valuable to them.

Like all public relations tools, the news embargo can be useful in the right circumstances, but it carries complications that can make it not worth the effort.