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On V-E Day, Four Lessons from a WWII News Embargo

Today is the 67th anniversary of the official end of hostilities in the European theater of World War II. The unconditional surrender of Germany was announced on May 8, 1945.

The Associated Press correspondent who filed his V-E Day report on May 8 — a full day before competing media outlets — also violated a news embargo imposed by the Allied Command. As a result, the US military expelled the reporter from France and briefly banned AP dispatches from Europe. The AP then fired the reporter, Ed Kennedy, in spite of the enormous scoop he had handed his news agency.

This story has resurfaced in the last few days because the AP president, Tom Curley, has issued an apology to Kennedy’s family. While Kennedy died in 1963, his family recently published his memoir with an introduction penned by Curley. As part of the publicity push, the AP filed an engrossing article on Kennedy’s tale that has appeared in many newspapers, spurring discussion of embargo management.

The proper way to manage a news embargo is a topic of endless interest within PR agencies like Sterling Communications. Online media sites such as TechCrunch imposed a death sentence on the embargo as far back as 2008. Embargoes are now frequently violated even by old-line media such as the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, provoking furious arguments on Twitter. As soon as one outlet publishes the story, the other dominoes will fall. Sometimes disagreements arise even with a single news organization, where online news staff or wire staff may violate an embargo time established for the print edition.

In the case of Ed Kennedy, there are four key points about embargo management that bear comment:

(1)  The 17 reporters who were offered the chance to witness the May 7surrender ceremony agreed to embargo the news until authorized by Allied headquarters to file their stories. However, this was originally understood to be for a few hours only. Censors later extended the blackout to 36 hours.

Embargoes are normally set for a specific amount of time. The US military may have the power to extend an embargo time past the original agreed-upon time, but don’t expect that a civilian company can. (Well, maybe Apple.) In any normal situation —which the German surrender was not — a reporter shouldn’t be relied upon to hold the story once the embargo time has passed. The PR representative can certainly try to call in favors with reporters who have the story, but shouldn’t expect the new timeframe will stick, especially if the news is truly noteworthy. Reporters want their scoop!

(2)  German officials announced the surrender by radio during the extended blackout period. Kennedy then requested the American censor lift the embargo, since the news was out, but his request was denied. That’s when Kennedy made his fateful decision to go rogue.

 It’s S.O.P. now for a reporter to ignore an embargo if someone else has already violated it. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but if the embargo hasn’t held, the reporter derives no benefit from keeping to it, as long as he/she can point to the earlier story. Ideally, the reporter will notify the PR contact that the embargo hasn’t held. However, a military embargo is not the same as a corporate one. Kennedy knew he was running a huge risk.

(3)  Kennedy dictated his story directly to the AP’s London bureau, which issued the story on the wire within minutes. He did not first discuss the dilemma with his editors.

 This is where Kennedy failed. This type of lone cowboy behavior is an example of short-term thinking. Yes, he beat his competitors with the story, but he created a lot of hurt for the AP in the long run. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t run their Watergate accusations against the White House without first securing Ben Bradlee’s approval, and Bradlee solicited his publisher’s advice. It’s possible that Kennedy’s editors would have reined him in — and as his employers, they had a right to do so. However, if they’d given him the go-ahead, he’d have kept his job.

(4)  The 16 war correspondents that continued to honor the embargo were furious, and later signed a protest letter requesting the military ban on the AP.

You can’t blame them. Kennedy flaunted the rules and won a huge scoop for the AP, while the correspondents who stuck by their pledge were shut out for another day. Unfortunately, the AP had to bear responsibility for the actions of its employee, even though it had not condoned his behavior.

Ed Kennedy was stuck between a rock and a hard place. His reluctance to honor an embargo on a piece of news that was public was understandable, but he sabotaged himself when he bypassed his editor. There were mistakes on both sides. It’s a story rife with cinematic possibilities — take note, Leonardo DiCaprio!

Lisa Hawes can be reached at lhawes@sterlingpr.com. Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisakayhawes.

Photo credit: Frank L. Dubervill. Canada. Department of National Defence. Library and Archives Canada, PA-191985 via flickr Creative Commons