Embargoes can be both helpful and challenging for media relations. By placing a news release under embargo, PR pros can release news to media outlets and at the same time delay publication until a certain date and time. That enables brands to determine the timing of announcements and “control the narrative” in PR parlance. When successful, embargoes can deepen relationships between PR pros and journalists and earn coverage in multiple media outlets.
Reporters also sometimes like embargoes because they provide extra time to prepare their stores, review the material, and find additional sources that offer new perspectives.
The challenge is convincing media outlets to agree to the embargo. Journalists feel a professional duty be first to report news. They view the first to publish as the winner, the second as an also-ran. Publishers also feel pressure to run news before competitors. In the not so distant past, PR pros faxed out releases labeled “under embargo” and specified the date and time when journalists could publish the news. Those days are gone. Blame the rise of bloggers, new online news sites, and the real-time news cycle. Some outlets have announced that they don’t observe embargoes.
Some reporters circumvent embargoes by interviewing a third-party source not aware of the embargo, which allows them to plausibly deny they broke the embargo.
But press release embargoes are not dead. According to a survey by Innowire Inc., 71% of reporters like to receive press releases under embargo; 29% don’t.
While the embargo is not dead, its definition has changed. An embargo now means an agreement with media outlets not to publish the news until the predetermined time. The key word is “agreement.”
How to Use Embargoes Effectively for Media Relations
Don’t confuse embargoes with exclusives. An exclusive entails releasing news to a single reporter before others. That requires careful research to select the right publication and reporter. Embargoed releases go to multiple reporters.
Use them selectively. Relatively few occasions warrant an embargo. Product announcements or announcements of research results at trade shows can benefit from the tactic. They’re also common for releases on lengthy scientific reports. If the PR team is confident the story will garner widespread media attention, it will typically not pursue an exclusive or embargoed strategy.
Plan in advance. Send reporters the pitches at least a week in advance of the embargo lift date to give reporters sufficient time to consider the news. “Pitching an announcement two days prior to the embargo lift time is unrealistic and may annoy the media,” writes Bindi Saikia at Crenshaw Communications. “Needless to say, the coverage will also be limited.”
Get it in writing. Verbal agreements are no longer sufficient and email is inadequate. A media rep may offer a vague email response that doesn’t technically agree to the embargo or may delete the email exchange. Approach the agreement as a non-confrontational, routine business practice and give the same treatment to all media outlets to avoid charges of favoritism. PR experts also advise obtaining signatures from editors and other higher-ups in addition to the reporter. Obtaining agreements necessarily limits distribution of embargoed news releases to a select few news sources – usually those most important to success of the release.
Prepare a plan to respond to leaks and embargo violations. Consider providing those who honored the embargo additional information and access to corporate executives or subject matter experts to differentiate their coverage from others, Sparrer suggests. If one publication breaks the embargo, others will probably quickly follow. Be prepared for reporters to be unhappy with both the violators and the PR team. PR may wish to consider notifying all publications if the embargo is broken and releasing them from the embargo. PR may also consider banning publications that break embargoes from future releases, although that might not be a viable strategy against major publications.
Consider the date and time. When choosing an embargo lift date, avoid competing with major industry news expected that day. Also offer a consistent embargo time around the globe. Tuesday at noon Eastern Time is Wednesday at 2 a.m. in Sydney, Australia.
Follow PR pitching best practices. Follow standard media pitching recommendations when approaching reporters and writing news releases, such as writing clearly and concisely. Include the word “Embargo” in the email subject line to gain the reporter’s attention.
Manage your client’s expectations. Just because a reporter has agreed to an embargo, doesn’t mean that he will write a story, says Caitlin Kasunich at KCSA Public Relations. Some reporters might interview your client yet still decide against writing for one reason or another. Make sure that your client understands this.
Work to limit leaks. Even with agreements, leaks are possible. The more reporters who agree to the embargo, the greater the chance of a leak. Reporters may seek quotes from others, including competitors, about your announcement, increasing chances of a leak. Longer lead times also increase risks. Ideally, the news release should be issued at least two to five days before the end of the embargo says Ami Neiberger-Miller, founder of PR practice Steppingstone LLC.
Monitor the media. A media monitoring service with comprehensive monitoring of both social and traditional media and timely email alerts will notify you when your brand or products are mentioned online. That will allow you to quickly respond to embargo violations as well as media placements after the embargo ends. An advanced PR measurement service can provide the PR metrics needed to analyze the effectiveness of the strategy.
Follow through and follow up. Contact reporters the day before the embargo lift date to ask if they have all the information they need and remind them about the exact embargo lift time. After they publish the story, send a thank-you note.
Be careful. The stakes are high. When done well, embargoes can improve relationships with reporters and their publications. A bungled embargo will strain those relationships. Embargoes are not a tool for media relations novices. PR veterans warn that embargoes are best handled by seasoned media relations pros with established media contacts.
Bottom Line: Some believe embargoes have disappeared, but under the right circumstances and in expert hands they can still improve public relations results. Today’s embargoes are nothing like the embargoes of pre-internet times.
This post was first published on Sept. 9, 2018, and updated on Aug. 20, 2020.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.