News embargoes: manage them well and they will help maintain high-quality journalism

Today news can travel around the world in the time it takes you to type fewer than 140 characters and some news outlets have openly said that they will publish information before it’s supposed to be shared with the public, if they so choose, in order to avoid losing a story to a competitor. However news embargoes are still a valuable tool in PR and marketing for both vendors and the media. Let me explain: sometimes an announcement is both critical to a vendor and of particular interest to some media and, by sharing the release with a selected number of journalists before it hits the wire, these writers have time to work it in depth and write a better-quality, more interesting story that’s not going to be old news when it comes out and, crucially, without the risk of another outlet beating them to it (the alternative being an article that’s so close to the original release that’s nearly a reproduction of the announcement). This is particularly relevant before industry-wide events, namely trade shows when potentially thousands of press releases go out to the same press list on the same day.

In my line of work I find clients asking to use embargoes on a regular basis often I’m the one suggesting that information is shared under embargo in one of two ways: prior to the information being made public or by sharing data e.g. sensitive customer names, that might never be made public but that helps understand the story. What drove me to write this post is not, as you might think, the wish to share my thoughts on how to ensure that your selected journalists don’t break the embargo (this happens very rarely and is usually down to miscommunication or human error) but, rather, to share my view on how vendors can manage embargoes at their end to maximise them and ensure that they become a valuable and positive tool in their PR kit.

In the case of a time-limiting embargo e.g. when an announcement is given to a target in advance of its public distribution, there are a few things a vendor should ensure that they do – or rather don’t do:

•    Demand a written embargo: the majority of the IT press hasn’t signed an embargo for many years (unless it’s for one of those companies where the signing in process when you visit their offices means that you are automatically agreeing to one). Today it’s all about trust: you trust your chosen targets with time-restricted information and they return the favour by honouring the embargo – they know that it’s a one-strike-and-you’re-out deal

•    Give the embargoed news to the wrong people: it’s pivotal that information under embargo is only shared with targets you trust will honour the embargo. Don’t assume that someone will respect the lift-off date just because you are asking them to it might be their corporate policy not to agree to embargoes for a number of reasons. If you are unsure as to whether a target will stick to the lift-off date you can ask them, but my advice would generally be to adopt the ‘better safe than sorry’ policy because if even just one target breaks the embargo, all the other ones will have done a not insignificant amount of work for, well, very little return, and won’t be pleased

•    Give the embargoed news to too many people: sometimes you should give an announcement under embargo to only one or two targets because it’s just the right story for them and you offer it as a (semi) exclusive. In that case you tend to be rewarded with in-depth stories that explore the announcement from different angles

•    Give too long an embargo: for the press a week is ideal, two is the maximum. Anything longer and they might not be interested, or they might take the release (and a briefing) but then lose the initial excitement about the news and drop it for something they perceive as more interesting as the lift-off date approaches

•    Give too short an embargo: the purpose of a date-restricted embargo is to give your targets enough time to review the news, research the topic, ask questions, get a briefing and write the story before this hits the wires. If you offer them the announcement a day or two before everyone else gets it, that’s not a fair length of time to expect them to see your offer (they might be travelling or in meetings that day for example or have a special report coming up that your news would fit in well with and you might miss that), act upon it and have the time required to finish their story in time

•    Change the lift-off date: few things annoy a journalist as much as an organisation having given them some news under embargo, the story having been written and queued in the Content Management System, only to get an email to say that for x, y or z reason the embargo date has moved out by a day, a week or even longer. Chances are that the writer prioritised your announcement over others because of the appeal of being able to publish the story before its competitors. If the pressure of working with the time restraints of an embargo was a pointless exercise because the deadline has now been moved by a few days, that will not make you many friends

•    Share a news release draft that’s too far from the final version: while it’s important to give the announcement to the target(s) a week or so in advance, if the draft is not solid enough in terms of messaging, figures, names, etc. it won’t be of much value to the journalist. Sometimes we all have to work with releases that are not finalised until the day before distribution but in that case it might be worth not sharing them in advance if there is just not enough solid information to write an interesting story. If possible push the distribution date out to give yourself more time to share a better-quality announcement under embargo. And on the subject of content, try to also send supporting slides or other relevant materials with the news

•    Give incomplete/unclear embargo information: make sure that when you provide information on the lift off you clearly outline the date, time and time zone. So ‘Tuesday’ is not helpful and neither is ‘25 May.’ However ‘Monday 25th May at 5:00am ET’ leaves no doubt as to the exact date and time when the news is going out and the press can hit the ‘publish’ button. On a similar note, try not to have the embargo lift too late in the day in a key region: so if for this release your top markets are the US and Europe for example, try to go out around 4:00am ET as that means that central Europe will be reading the news mid-morning and US-based eyeballs will also be able to see the coverage when they first log in.

You might have noticed that throughout my post I have so far referred to press only and this is because bloggers and analysts treat embargoes in a different way: the former are not as bothered by breaking news (usually they are not looking to become news sources like the media but rather very technical, insightful and unbiased sources of comment) and the latter work with embargoes every day of the week and are often given information under permanent embargo so there are virtually no risks of a leak associated with sharing information with analysts in advance. Actually, sometimes it’s a good idea to give the likes of 451 Research, Freeform Dynamics, Gartner, IDC and Quocirca the heads up on upcoming announcements because that way if and when they are approached by the press about you when the news goes out, they are fully up to speed with your latest announcement.

So to cut a long story short, embargoes can be good news (excuse the pun) for both vendors and the media if properly managed. They might mean fewer stories but if a reader is just after the original release they can easily get it from many sources that reproduce announcements with no added insight or comment. And guess which ones are the articles that end up being shared on social media platforms? Ultimately embargoes can help maintain higher quality coverage in a culture where we expect the latest news to reach us as they break.

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