The Press Embargo: Dead or Alive?

Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes via Flickr

In 2008, TechCrunch published Michael Arrington’s manifesto calling for the death of the news embargo: “From this point on we will break every embargo we agree to.” Media relations professionals pulled hair, gnashed teeth and whined on social media. Seven years later, the press embargo —a gentleman’s agreement between a reporter and a source to hold a specific piece of news confidential until a pre-determined date and time— is alive and kicking in Silicon Valley.

Have you seen Empire, the hit of the Fox TV spring schedule? One of the (many) laughably unrealistic aspects of the show’s depiction of press management was the complete faith in “off the record” comments and utter lack of respect for SEC regulations regarding “quiet period” press communications and pre-IPO roadshow hype. Or was it so unrealistic? I was shocked when I attended a private media event recently that was part of a larger blogger conference and was commanded by the host to honor an embargo. My client was among the exhibitors, and the vast majority of the attendees were hobbyist product reviewers, not professional journalists. What truly surprised me was that the host waited until everyone was in the auditorium, ostensibly for entertainment, to inform us that we were privy to a confidential preview. We were required to turn off all devices and were promised a press release in a few days with details about the embargo lift time. Qui tacet consentit.

If I’d been a reporter, the assumption of implied consent without a specific deadline would have annoyed me enough that I’d have hit my keyboard as soon as I was out of the Wi-Fi dead zone. However, the majority of the attendees seemed thrilled with the inside scoop and didn’t want to burn bridges to the company involved, limiting future access. The thing that most surprised me was that it was a publicly traded company that displayed this cavalier attitude towards an embargo. Private companies can say what they like, when they like, but a public company is bound by SEC rules that pertain to “selective disclosure.” Telling confidential news to a roomful of bloggers who have not specifically agreed to an embargo is begging to have your news leaked. In fact, I suspected that it was part of the risky media strategy of the company involved.

Three tips for establishing an embargo:

  1. Embargoes are like “opt-in” mailings. A good PR person never assumes that a reporter or blogger will agree to an embargo.
  2. Show deference to the (assumed) journalistic integrity of the reporter, inform him or her that you have a piece of news to share under embargo, and ask for acquiescence.
  3. Acknowledge that even if the reporter agrees to the embargo, it doesn’t mean that coverage will ensue. Agreeing to an embargo is merely the first step on the path to coverage.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss when it’s appropriate to break your own press embargo.

Lisa Hawes can be reached at lhawes@sterlingpr.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at @LisaKayHawes.