PR’s Four-Letter Word

There’s nothing more powerful in the PR arsenal than the use of the embargo (click here for a sample embargo).  Reporters hate them. PR pros love them. It’s the ultimate tool of professional manipulation.

Die, Embargo, Die! Die! Die!On the one hand, it’s pretty ballsy to think anyone can control the media’s distribution of a story—especially if you’re a reporter or working the general assignment desk.

To be sure, the use of an embargo is a contentious strategy, used only when a story has significant industry or community impact. Yet, it’s still my favourite weapon of choice to ensure an important story receives a tsunami of nearly simultaneous news coverage.

For an embargo to be effective, you need compliance from all parties involved: designated spokespeople, clients and their stakeholders, all of whom may be privy to important information. And yes, it can be difficult to keep everyone quiet.

But more importantly, it also involves the media’s acquiescence. And that can be a complicated transaction.

What happens when a media outlet breaks an embargo early? Depending on the strength of the news source, there can be serious consequences. Reporters have  been blacklisted and their privileges of receiving advance information revoked. There was also the recent embargo break by The New Yorker’s movie reviewer David Denby.

Here are my tried-and-true ways of making an embargo work:

1.     It better be good.

Only use an embargo if:

  • Your story is truly significant (this could be significant on a local or national level).
  • There is a press conference accompanying the release of the news.

2.      Don’t cry wolf.

Don’t mis-use an embargo hoping it will entice reporters to cover a weak story.  You will lose all credibility with the media who will be even less likely to cover your next initiative.

3.     No exclusives.

For an embargo to work, I never offer exclusives. Everyone gets a shot to cover the story, especially if you’re holding a press conference. Plus, I never want to be seen as favouring one reporter over another.

4.     Pre-releasing embargoed information.

TV reporters covering a specific beat (eg, health) often create longer pieces that require more shooting and more editing, but also get more airtime. I do pre-release embargoed information, but only after the reporter signs a confidentiality agreement.  These are also reporters with whom I have developed strong and trusting relationships.

5.     Get an embargo agreement signed

I have reporters sign an embargo agreement; one that prohibits them and all their outlet’s extensions from pre-releasing the story. Not only does it underline the potential importance of the story, but it creates a bond of trust between you and the reporter. And no, I’ve never had anybody not sign one.

 6.     Stick to your guns.

Reporters can get aggressive with you when they see the word embargo.  “You know, we may not run the story at all,” says Reporter from Major Media Outlet. Uh, yes you will if the story is good.

 Have you ever used an embargo?  Was it successful? 

 Elissa FreemanAs a died-in-wool Toronto Maple Leafs hockey fan, PR veteran Elissa Freeman jumped at the chance to guest blog for a guy with the last name ‘Esposito’ from Boston.  A 20+ year PR veteran, she was named one of Twitters’ Top 75 Badass Females and Toronto’s Top 150 Social Media Influencers.

Embargo image – tvanhoosear


31 Responses to PR’s Four-Letter Word
  1. ginidietrich
    January 9, 2012 | 8:25 am

    I don’t know of any reason you’d want to continue using an embargo. I’d rather provide exclusives to those who deserve them and let the rest fight for the story at the same time as everyone else. That whole movie review of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo made me angry because the stipulation to see the movie was to agree not to write anything until a certain date. That’s less an embargo and more your word. And the guy went back on his word.

  2. ElissaFreeman
    January 9, 2012 | 8:43 am

    In my own experience, my community of reporters(even if it a national beat) is smaller and you’re dealing with them more frequently. In that case, I would never want to favour one over the other via exclusives. But I also think there’s a fine line bw the definition of ‘respecting an embargo’ and ‘going back on your word’….

  3. JulesZunichPR
    January 9, 2012 | 9:55 am

    The last thing a PR gal wants to do is put herself between @ElissaFreeman and @ginidietrich on a issue, but I’m about to do just that. I agree with you Gini in that I would not use the word “Embargo” (pretty sure I haven’t used it since about 1998) and would not ask a journalist to sign a confidentiality agreement. When I did tech PR we would work on product announcement and embargoed releases were common. It was a fine line and I always felt that I would only go to the reporters that I had worked with before, who knew the company/industry well and had previously expressed interest in receiving the information. Although we did the embargoed release dance, I think the process was much more similar to what Elissa experiences – close communication on confidentiality and timing with a small group of trusted journalists. It’s give and take. Back then we printed the work EMBARGOED on the top of the release. It’s much more difficult with social media to dictate who will talk about what and when, but good reporters work with their best sources to maintain trust. Companies are tensing from their lack of information control, which I understand, but the “stick to your guns” approach may not work now. I would hesitate to counsel a client that it would be possible to control news, even on a limited basis. I might work hard to avoid even having to do that. I am curious to see what others post.

  4. jeffespo
    January 9, 2012 | 10:06 am

    @spurdave Thanks

  5. StaceyHood
    January 9, 2012 | 10:07 am

    @jeffespo You’re welcome!

  6. StaceyHood
    January 9, 2012 | 10:07 am

    @jeffespo You’re welcome!

  7. jeffespo
    January 9, 2012 | 10:08 am

    @StaceyHood I opted out of you

  8. jeffespo
    January 9, 2012 | 10:08 am

    @StaceyHood I opted out of you

  9. StaceyHood
    January 9, 2012 | 10:08 am

    @jeffespo I can’t quit you!

  10. jeffespo
    January 9, 2012 | 10:08 am

    @StaceyHood and that is just Penn Stateish

  11. StaceyHood
    January 9, 2012 | 10:08 am

    @jeffespo Let it go, Jeff. It’s easier that way.

  12. jeffespo
    January 9, 2012 | 10:09 am

    @StaceyHood so awful in so many ways

  13. jeffespo
    January 9, 2012 | 11:35 am

    @ElissaFreeman@ginidietrich playing the devil’s advocate here. Couldn’t an exclusive also be seen as an embargo of sorts since they do have the news early?

  14. jeffespo
    January 9, 2012 | 12:09 pm

    @John_Trader1 TY sir… hope all is well with you

  15. John_Trader1
    January 9, 2012 | 12:12 pm

    @jeffespo I completely forgot about that recent Girl With the Dragon Tattoo embargo. A very interesting topic..kudos to @elissapr

  16. elissapr
    January 9, 2012 | 1:52 pm

    @John_Trader1 Thank you for your lovely words! cc @jeffespo

  17. John_Trader1
    January 9, 2012 | 2:02 pm

    @elissapr very informative post! I guess u are pretty stoked about the Maple Leafs unexpected surge this yr – Pundits saying 94 pts 4 season

  18. elissapr
    January 9, 2012 | 2:04 pm

    @John_Trader1 Hey I’d be stoked about any sort of surge with the Leafs!! #LongSufferingSince1967

  19. ElissaFreeman
    January 9, 2012 | 2:05 pm

    Yes well…exc lusives are embargoed…

  20. JulesZunichPR
    January 9, 2012 | 6:13 pm

    @ElissaFreeman But isn’t the difference that an embargoed release goes out to everyone with the specific date as to when the news can be released and an exclusive would only be offered to one person and the date may be a non-issue?

  21. ElissaFreeman
    January 9, 2012 | 8:06 pm

    I usually never deal in exclusives – I think if a story is good enough everyone will and should cover it. If a story has limited appeal to specific audience via a specific media outlet…then yes, I would consider an exclusive.

  22. jeffespo
    January 10, 2012 | 4:15 pm

    @vanhoosear notice the image credit in that post

  23. vanhoosear
    January 11, 2012 | 7:23 am

    @jeffespo Hell yeah!! 🙂

  24. jeffespo
    January 11, 2012 | 8:09 am

    @vanhoosear 🙂

  25. jeffespo
    January 12, 2012 | 8:29 am

    @JGoldsborough Thanks buddy

  26. jeffespo
    January 13, 2012 | 3:29 pm

    @cargillcreative thanks

  27. cgornpr
    January 31, 2012 | 12:46 pm

    @jeffespo Great, great, great post about the use of the Embargo. In particular the “It had better be good.” part.

  28. SternalPR
    February 5, 2012 | 7:44 am

    @jeffespo Ive seen the embargo work well since it gives media chance to prepare for a big story. Nice post.

  29. jepotts
    February 5, 2012 | 4:03 pm

    @jeffespo 1. Not quite sure every #PR person loves embargoes, especially when they are set by third parties like scientific journals.

  30. jepotts
    February 5, 2012 | 4:04 pm

    @jeffespo 2. And it’s true you can’t embargo a story and then give an exclusive. But sometimes exclusives serve the interest of #PR.

  31. jeffespo
    February 5, 2012 | 4:50 pm

    @jepotts all depends I never use em but @elissapr has some interesting thoughts on them

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