Conventional PR mechanisms face many challenges in this new Internet-enabled world, but one of the thorniest for product vendors is the question of controlling information prior to announcements. Although there are many benefits to briefing writers and thought leaders ahead of time, there is a difference of opinion on how to handle this. And not all writers are the same, with reporters being focused on scoops and independent bloggers often more interested in considering their take on the news. Then there is the issue of embargo-breaking, and how to handle leaks. What should one do?
You might also want to read my (personal) stance on embargoes.
Embargo vs. NDA
Embargoes and NDAs are two very different things, although many people, including those actively involved in PR, confuse the terms.
- An embargo is a time-limited release of inside information. Reporters agree to keep the content of a briefing confidential until a specific date and time, then all bets are off. Embargoes normally rely on the honor system, so both sides must trust each other not to break the terms. Breaking an embargo normally gives one a bad reputation and can interfere with future briefings but lawsuits are unlikely.
- A Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) is a legal contract between two parties that any confidential information discussed will not be shared until it is public. Breaking an NDA can land one in court, with stiff penalties being imposed. Being a legal contract, an NDA must include some sort of “consideration” or reward to the signer; though the information itself is often enough, NDAs are also often used for employees and contractors.
As you can see, an embargo is not an NDA and vice versa. Both have their benefits, but NDAs are really not effective for public relations, especially when dealing with bloggers. Because of the legal peril involved, many will treat information released under NDA with extreme care and may not write or speak about the topic at all for fear of breaking the agreement. Obviously, this is in opposition to the desires of PR representatives! Therefore, I always discourage the use of NDAs except for employees, contractors, or close advisors.
What Bloggers Want
Each blogger or reporter receiving embargoed information has their own goal in mind.
Many writers want a scoop to driver readership. This gives their publication greater revenue from advertisers. These writers are often more prolific, covering many announcements in hopes of being first or best on the day of the release. These traffic spikes help drive overall pageviews or circulation. The embargo date is important to them since it ensures that their competition will not publish the story first.
Others may want greater access to information, allowing them to fully digest and consider news to present to their audience. Many independent bloggers fall into this category, though some reporters behave in this way as well. The goal here is not the deadline but the extra time for deliberation and the ability to ask questions. They may feel pressure to be timely, but are less focused on the initial spike of traffic.
Companies reaching out to writers must consider their goals. Is this a scoop-driven or a thoughtful reporter? It pays allocate extra time for Q&A with the slower publisher, though they may not write about your announcement at all. Conversely, a company should consider which “scoopers” to reach in order to build a good relationship and encourage publicity.
Companies benefit in many ways from embargoed briefings:
- They thought leaders to learn about information ahead of time, giving them time to consider the ramifications of the announcement.
- Writers can take time to adequately research and compose a piece about an upcoming announcement under less deadline pressure.
- Embargoed releases give the writer an advantage over their non-briefed rivals, a valuable benefit to be sure.
- All involved in a briefing can discuss the implications of an announcement, ensuring more-thorough understanding.
- An embargo offer demonstrates trust and confidence in the writer, engendering goodwill.
- The release of the embargo gives a timed blip of publicity, as many sites cover the news simultaneously.
It is hard to find a downside to embargoed briefings, really. Companies benefit, writers benefit, and the wider audience benefits since they get better coverage.
When Embargoes Fail
The only real negative to an embargo is the prospect of someone breaking it. Although some reporters actively disregard embargoes, many respect them. They see the valuable role of the embargo and are willing to play the game and hold off publishing to ensure the flow of good and timely information.
However, the truth is that many embargoes are broken. One common cause is the company itself “going live” with the information on their web site, or that of an affiliate. Tech news hounds often discover new product releases from retailers, international affiliates, and suppliers. This is actually quite a bit more common than a trusted reporter intentionally breaking the news ahead of an embargo! Mistakes can always happen, but trust is usually enough for writers.
Once the embargo has failed, many questions arise. If the information is public, can a reporter “run with it” and publish their stories? It seems that this is considered acceptable among writers: Once news is “in the wild” then it is “fair game.” However, others see it as a badge of personal honor to uphold an embargo even if the news has broken elsewhere.
There is also the matter of the nature of the embargo: Companies sending embargoed releases willy-nilly via email should not expect the same respect as those that arrange personal briefings with executives. One cannot assume that a writer agrees to respect an embargo unless they specifically say they will!
Do Embargoes Right
Companies should absolutely brief writers and bloggers ahead of releases. But they should do it right, following these guidelines:
- Rely on in-person or interactive online or phone briefing with trusted writers. Never send embargoed press releases to unknown recipients.
- PR pros should request the briefing, giving a few time options including some after regular work hours.
- PR should consider the focus of the writer before asking for a briefing, and writers should turn down briefings they are not interested in rather than waste precious time.
- Schedule adequate time for the call, allowing for question and answer time.
- Send the presentation, press release, and photos ahead of the call.
- Give enough time for consideration, follow-up, and writing before the release date but not so much time that the information is forgotten.
- Keep the content tight, including just the information to be released rather than future strategic directions.
- Don’t ask for an NDA before sharing news, and don’t call your embargo an NDA if you don’t have a contract.
- Make sure you specify the time and time zone as well as the date for the embargo to be lifted.
Companies following these guidelines will likely see increased coverage and publicity. Failing to treat writers with respect will likely result in ill-will and breakage of your embargo!