I’ve worked in public relations for six and a half years and embargoes still scare the crap out of me. TechCrunch and Twitter were all abuzz on Friday after a blog post by my buddy Ryan Lawler, about a rival tech blogger breaking a startup’s embargo. Which is basically, a publicist’s worst nightmare (well, one of them).
Unless you work in PR or journalism, you may be wondering what exactly an embargo is, other than the reason Americans are not allowed to smoke Cuban cigars. The term “embargo” refers to when a company has big news that will be announced soon and they want the media to write about it as soon as it’s announced. So, in order to give certain journalists a head-start on writing their stories, publicists will provide them with information on the condition that they do not run their stories until a specified time. That way, the writers have time to craft the story, ask any follow-up questions and run it by their editors before the time that the embargo “lifts.” They’re then able to immediately publish a more nuanced story than a hastily slapped-together “this is a thing that happened” piece.
As you can probably guess, the fear factor comes from the fact that you need to trust the journalists to keep that secret until the specified announcement time. Sometimes, people make mistakes and break an embargo by accident and sometimes, though it’s unethical and pretty much firebombs bridges, people break one on purpose, usually to get a leg up on the competition. Regardless of why it happens, this is a giant pain in the ass for the company’s publicist and the journalists who did respect the embargo. At that point, the publicist has to let the other disgruntled writers go ahead and file their pieces, although some of them will decide not to write about the topic after being scooped, as Ryan did (although, he changed his mind the next day, after considering everyone’s feedback about his post on the embargo break). This can be especially annoying if the embargo is broken at an inconvenient time, like a Friday in August, when many people are heading to the beach for a long weekend, not sitting at their computers with one eyeball glued to Twitter (which is what happened in this case). Even worse, particularly in the tech world, the product may not even be live on the Web yet and/or the tech team may have to scramble to make sure the site can handle the influx of traffic earlier than expected.
So, if dealing with an embargo is so dangerous and delicate, why do people even bother doing them? One reason is that it allows you to release your news and do a strong PR push at a more opportune moment in the news cycle — a Monday morning, perhaps, instead of an evening or weekend, when not as many people are paying attention to the news. Another is that it lets you give several of your contacts an advantage over the general public by briefing them in advance. However, none of those journalists have an advantage over each other, since they must all line up at the same starting line, regardless of who was briefed first or last.
I recently briefed a handful of journalists under embargo for the private beta launch of Togather [shameless plug: go check it out!]. Thankfully, everything worked out fine, but I was definitely on edge for about a week before launch time. Some of the journalists we briefed (including Ryan) chose not to write about the launch, which was totally fine, and I appreciated them even taking the time to check out the demo.
Regarding those who did write, each and every single story was a bit different, which is the beauty of a varied media landscape and shows why being first isn’t the only thing that matters, even though it can sometimes feel like that in this 24-hour, frenetic news cycle. One article was in print, others were online only. Some focused on the benefit to authors, others were heavy on the founding story, and others chose to write about the fact that the startup was incubated by a digital agency. Fast Company’s story was one of the last to run but also was the only piece to include insight from some of the authors who signed up for the private beta. Each story is a ~*SpEcIaL sNoWfLaKe*~, so it doesn’t really matter which was the first to fall.
If you do decide that pre-briefing journalists is unavoidable for your launch, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Only pre-brief reporters you can trust. I try to only offer pre-briefings to journalists I’ve worked with before and who I know will most likely honor the embargo and not get me in trouble. If you really want to talk to a media outlet where you don’t know anyone, ask your industry friends if they can recommend a trustworthy writer there. When a journalist breaks an embargo, word tends to get around.
- Do not tell anyone the details until they’ve agreed to honor the embargo (preferably, in writing). Don’t just email all your secrets to a journalist and then mention at the end, “Oh, by the way, don’t write about this until Monday.” That’s not how it works. Tell them enough details to pique their interest and make it very clear that if you tell them more, the information is under embargo until a specific time. Write that time in bold or red, if you have to. I’d recommend doing this in an email, in case things go south and you need to prove to all the people who want to punch you (your boss, your client, other journalists you briefed) that you really did tell the embargo-breaker about the restrictions and they chose to ignore them.
- Mention the embargo a few more times, for good measure. Reference the embargo lift time verbally during the briefing and make sure to email the journalist again afterward, to reiterate when they’re free to publish. At this point, they should be able to recite the embargo lift time in their sleep, like Hurley on Lost. While you’re at it, send along any additional information or screenshots that could be helpful for the story.
- Make yourself available for follow-up. Be sure to check your email and voicemail often (as if you don’t already) and give the journalists your cell phone number, so they can contact you with any follow-up questions before the announcement. This is particularly crucial on the weekend, especially when the embargo lifts on a Monday morning, which is common. Make sure the executives and product folks on your team are also on standby and accessible, in case a journalist has a follow-up question that only they can answer.
Also, I’d argue that the broken embargo and Ryan’s original blog post actually gave Lyft even more exposure than it would have normally received, due to all of the controversy and chatter. Hopefully, all the company stakeholders recognize that, too, and no one in the PR department got spanked. So, now that we’re all clear on embargoes, let’s go do some journalist-publicist trust falls!
[Update: Ryan has written a lengthy blog post that goes into more depth regarding Friday’s embargo dramz and sheds some light on TechCrunch’s current embargo policy. For the record, I don’t think he really has anything to apologize for and I maintain that the covering-Lyft-by-“not-covering”-it angle was clever and beneficial to the company. Also, confirmation of my suspicion that some people in the industry ONLY read TechCrunch for tech news is a bit disheartening, even though TC is, of course, a worthwhile source. Variety is the spice of life, you guys!]
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