Defending The Indefensible - A Few Words About Embargoes
Everyone hates embargoes. It’s true. I’m talking about the PR person-to-journalist kind here, not the more benevolent version that applies to Cuba or North Korea. If you are ever in the mood for some sausage-making, naval-gazing goodness, just cruise around the Web and read up on how writers feel about this structured, and increasingly prevalent, information exchange. Actually, let me save you some time. As Jerry Seinfeld said to George, when asked for an evaluation of his new toupee, “It’s not good, OK. Not good.”
There are probably a million different ways for a company to put out information, and a million different ways for enterprising reporters to pursue stories. Outreach today can take the form of blog posts, pitches, Tweets and other direct-to-consumer tactics. But, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s limit ourselves to the classic preparation, the press release. A document that, for better or worse, still represents the bedrock and cornerstone of proactive media relations. A document that, at its best, conveys timely information about some meaningful business development - the launch of a new product or service (or company), an enhancement to an existing product or service (or company), some material information that seems to form the basis for trying to “earn” some media attention.
In the case of this time-tested PR genre, there are basically three main distribution strategies to consider:
1. Push “send” on the release, do some follow-up and hope for the best.
2. Offer an “exclusive” to some chosen reporter/outlet, put them in a position to break the story and then follow with the broader release.
3. Work with a range of key reporters/outlets in advance, with coverage (to the extent it materializes) timed to appear as the release is distributed. Yes, the dreaded embargo.
Let’s elaborate on these, one at a time.
First off, just pushing send, which is probably the easiest, least involved and - for the PR person - most irresponsible approach. Remember, this is called earned media for a reason, you earn it, based on the substance/strength of your information and how much thought and care goes into making sure it reaches the right reporters/outlets. You know that thing about how a new car is instantly worth thousands less the moment it is driven off the dealer’s lot? Well, the press release that’s been distributed on PR Newswire, Business Wire or PRWeb before any writer has ever seen it is like that, too. Sure, it might get covered, but you will be swimming upstream from the moment you press the button. Say all you want about the purity of good/legitimate information finding its way into copy, the new car analogy holds. Things move fast, people are busy, and once a release is “out,” it’s out, and it’s typically less valuable and less interesting and you are less likely to get someone to write about it, whatever it is.
Now, let’s turn to the exclusive, the surest fire way to alienate your entire media list in exchange for - you hope - one decent clip. This is generally not recommended.
That leaves the embargo, the hated, maligned, insidious embargo. Let’s break it down. You have a press release that includes some legitimate information you would like the public to know, through the media. So, you sit down and you make a distribution list. In a perfect world, who would write about this? Which outlets do you care about writing about this? This is careful, thoughtful, custom work - it requires relationships, awareness, analysis of past coverage and of the quality/significance of your own information, let’s say you wind up with 5-10 really key people at the end of this process. Maybe it’s 10-15. Under no circumstances is it 50.
You pick a date and a time that makes sense in the context of the business development you are trying to communicate, you wait as long as you possibly can to limit your pitfall exposure and then take your list and get on the phone with the reporters who are on it. The conversations go something like this:
“Hey [reporter], we have a release we’re going to be putting out, and I’d be happy to get it to you now as long as you agree not to publish anything until [date, time], are you OK with that?”
If the agreement is made, proceed to Step Two. Depending on the announcement, this may include a variety of elements to supplement the written document - an interview with a relevant executive, a demo, a tour, preview device, whatever. This all falls under the heading of Additional Information Being Provided In Advance Of The Formal Release, or AIBPIAOTFR. I just made that up. Keep in mind, you are not in a position to demand coverage in exchange for delivering the information, the choice to cover or not cover - as always - rests with the reporter, all you’re doing is previewing an announcement and asking them to agree not to burn you in the process by going early.
If it works, everyone’s happy. The people who decide to write, write. A wave of coverage in meaningful outlets occurs and when you actually do press “send” on that announcement it hits the water on skis, behind a 41-foot Sea Ray moving at a decent rate of speed, as opposed to being tossed over the side of the Northwestern like one of those crab pots on Deadliest Catch.
So what could go wrong?
Well, a lot of things. Don’t forget, there are human beings on both sides of this exchange and, depending on the relative greed or nonstrategic nature of the PR person offering the information, there might be a lot of them. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It seems like the vast majority of embargo backlash originates in the tech press, where an expanding array of start-up companies fighting for attention, funding, successful exits and single-family detached housing in Palo Alto supplement their internal media relations staff - to the extent they have any - with PR firms. Boots on the ground. Dialers for dollars.
This can be a problem, because the integrity of the embargo depends on everyone playing by the agreed-upon rules. If someone breaks the arrangement, no one wins. Well, one person wins, but just for one day, and they mess everyone else up and should subsequently be excommunicated from all future discussions/outreach. You can (and should) blame the offending reporter/outlet, especially if the breach was deliberate, but if you want to trace the affront all the way back to its source, it starts with the PR person who put that person on the list. Did they know them? Had they worked with them before? Did they go into the discussion thinking they would ever speak with them again? Because someone, somewhere, looking at an Excel spread sheet with names and phone numbers decided it was worth risking a continuing relationship with a smart and important guy like Ryan Lawler of TechCrunch in pursuit of blog post #36, by someone named Franz who just finished hiking through Europe and took a writing job to generate a new round of hostel money. Not the greatest of bets. You might also want to think through the broader company events happening in the general vicinity of your announcement. Maybe holding a party with beer and wine, a little bit of food and a room full of tech bloggers is not such a great idea when you still haven’t gone public with the fact your company exists. These are all things to consider.
As a PR person, It also helps if you start with a piece of information worthy of this kind of framing discussion, worthy of embargo treatment. If you are going to ask someone who writes for a living to hear something and not write until a designated time, that content better be worth hearing. If the information is pretty marginal, maybe just choose option #1 above, push send and get on the phone. Don’t call established journalists and crank up the gravitas because the dominant color on your company’s revamped website just changed from pink to magenta. Whatever you do, don’t be this guy.
I’ve been a part of dozens of embargoed announcements, maybe more, and have had things go wrong just once or twice, and that was in the early days of the Web, when the magic around when an outlet posted coverage online was typically controlled by one guy who worked in the basement and no one liked to talk to. The process, approached responsibly and with an appropriate level of thought and care, works. This may be one of those rare instances when “don’t hate the game, hate the player(s)” applies.
So, media relations people considering an announcement and a round of embargoed outreach need to ask themselves a simple question. Do you want to be Al Pacino at the end of Scarface, wild-eyed, shooting bullets and rockets in your own house and ultimately lying dead in your ostentatious indoor fountain? Or do you want to be Al Pacino at the end of The Godfather, having strategically taken care of all family business and reviewing porcelain tile samples for the patio outside the new place in Lake Tahoe?
Here’s a hint. There was no Scarface Part II.