Why PR and awards embargoes scare the hell out of me

Today, I feel Simon Pristel’s pain.

I’ve very nearly been there myself.

As an editor, embargoed awards results terrify me.   

And something going wrong is easier than you’d think.

herald sun hamishSo I do have  lot of sympathy on how the Herald Sun cocked up on the Logies.

(It did cock up by the way. At the time of posting they haven’t yet pulled back from the Google-ate-my-homework excuse, but they will shortly, I’m sure.)

I’ve had a near miss myself.

Back when I worked at B&T, the day before our first B&T Awards, a member of staff emailed the winners list to somebody at the production company. Only they sent it to somebody with the same first name who worked at a shortlisted agency.

In an extremely classy move, the person who received the list (who had lost, as it happens), emailed me to let me know, along with a promise to tell nobody. I can still remember that feeling of blood draining out of my body as I realised how close we had come to utter disaster.

Back in the UK, I attended a magazine’s awards where the printers were supposed to hold back the edition until after the event as it contained a winners brochure. Instead, it went out that morning.

The result was that none of the losers attended – leading to a quarter full room. The editor had to open his speech with the somewhat rueful: “I’ve had better days than today…”

So whenever we get sent results under embargo, I always check and double check the setting for the timed posting of the story. And I’m still terrified of something going wrong.

The particular technological cock-up that seems to have undone the Herald Sun – something to do with a test for their iPad edition – is also something I have a lot of sympathy for.

Editing yet another magazine in the early days of online, I was unaware that we routinely made available files of our print edition for a company that was licencing our content to use digitally. We had a big story on the front page based on confidential (but ethically obtained) information. Our legal advice was that we could safely put it in the public domain.

Unfortunately a major customer of this company licencing our content was the organisation at the centre of the story. They were leaked the story.

Between the printing of the magazine and its distribution, they won an injunction against us. We had to reprint the whole edition. It was the first of a small number of times where I’ve expected to be fired.

Embargoes are tough things to control. At their best, they help journalists better prepare a fuller story for their readers. Late night awards – and the need to catch the next day’s newspaper editions – are an example where they work well.

But these days, it’s too easy to go wrong. Just a fortnight ago, the SMH broke consumer group Choice’s embargo on a story. I presume accidentally, as it was quickly pulled down.

It’s also not that long since an Australian ad agency prepared a statement announcing that they had parted company with a client. They wrote it before going to the meeting, preparing for the worst case scenario. An overzealous PR then emailed it to the various trade press titles. So that was how the client heard they were parting ways.

In the US, Tech Crunch founder Michael Arrington created something of a furore when he declared that he would break all embargoes.

Personally, I think the benefits of PR embargoes still outweigh the risks. But if they do die out, then I won;t be too sad. They still scare the hell out of me.

Tim Burrowes


  1. Geordie
    16 Apr 12
    11:38 am

  2. Then why hasn’t this been fixed? Do CMSs that run these publications not have features in them to mark a story as embargoed and to provide the embargo date? Such a feature might refuse to publish an embargoed story or pop up a warning if you tried to publish a story that was embargoed, or might only accept the publish command from an editor.

    There was no technological cock-up here the same as Google was in no way responsible. Someone hit “go” and they weren’t meant to hit “go”. The only thing remarkable is there doesn’t seem to be any failsafe.

  3. Steve Holland
    16 Apr 12
    11:40 am

  4. I was pretty disappointed to read the release from the Herald Sun, not only did they say it was a technical glitch (someone pressing publish by mistake is not a glitch) but they blamed it on Google! Google don’t publish content that isn’t on the web! They’re a search engine scouring for fresh content.

    Google Australia have said this themselves: https://twitter.com/#!/googledownunder

    In addition to this, the Herald says it wasn’t on their website! Yes it was, I saw it! As did many others… I also took a screenshot. Going by the photo attached to this article so did many others.

  5. Stephen Hamilton
    16 Apr 12
    12:18 pm

  6. It sure does sound like something that will always run the risk of going wrong. To think a big organisation like the Herald Sun would mess it up is a little surprising, but even they have humans (and the error that comes with it) running the show.

    I guess where they really need their knuckles rapped isn’t that they made a little mistake with a big public humiliation, but rather that they then proceeded to blame everyone else for their screw up.

    You can bet that if Google stopped indexing their website(s) you would hear the screaming and gnashing of teeth from a long way away, so they can’t bitch about it when they mess it up and that same (automated) indexation process works against them.

  7. Anonymous
    16 Apr 12
    1:27 pm

  8. So someone’s published the page (but not linked anything to it), it’s indexed in Google & therefore is available in search results…and this is a technical glitch how?

  9. Greg
    16 Apr 12
    2:26 pm

  10. Unless you sign a legal document, there is no embargo. It’s cute PR people think writing ’embargoed’ in a subject line or at the top of a press release actually has any meaning.

  11. MicheyD
    16 Apr 12
    2:59 pm

  12. The embargo is a kind of ‘gentleman’s agreement’, I guess… It enables reporters to get prepped, do their research, conduct interviews and write up the story before the announcement.

    To remove the whole embargo thing would only put more pressure on already stressed journalists, working to increasingly tight deadlines. I’d argue the embargo is not ‘cute’, but rather, considerate…

  13. beezlebub
    16 Apr 12
    3:12 pm

  14. Greg you might wish to learn that the use of embargoed press releases is very common rather than ‘cute’ and is based on mutual respect and understanding between PR and recipient journalists. If it doesn’t exist, or you’re unsure whether it does, you obviously wouldn’t do it.

  15. Dave
    16 Apr 12
    4:04 pm

  16. Greg that is a cynical look that quite obviously shows that you have no experience in this area.

    Yes embargoes have no legal standing but there is a strong understanding of the needs to respect embargoes in journalism, and I am sure that if you spoke to journalists they will agree.

    There are benefits to embargoes for both PR and journalists. From my perspective (PR) we use embargoes when we want to give journalists some additional time to build their story – meaning they don’t just have to rely on the press release. We offer them background information, potential interviews and case studies.

    In the world of 24 hour news, an embargo is an essential tool to allow journalists to get a well-rounded story, not just something that is done by ‘cute PR people’.

  17. Journo
    16 Apr 12
    5:03 pm

  18. Mutual respect, lol. If you asked a (real) journalist they would say a little bit of them dies every time they accept embargoed information.

    That’s the point at which a publicist knows they have beaten a journalist. They then have complete control over when the media outlet publishes a story. It’s the point where journalism ends and PR begins.

    It wouldn’t be so bad if it was restricted to entertainment — no reporter queuing up for an interview at risk of losing freebie tickets if they stray from a pre-approved list of questions would pretend there is any “reporting” of entertainment.

    But it’s also widely used by governments to control to the timely release of information. Look at the much-maligned Budget lock-ups. It’s laughable that this has anything to do with protecting the market – it’s simply to lock journos in a room to better influence the message and flow of information.

    The simple fact is journalists compromise themselves by agreeing to embargos.
    The more they accept them, the more they are simply agents for a marketing strategy.

    I accept it’s a hard habit to break — but journalists should spend more time looking for ways to report what PRs don’t want reported – not the other way around.

  19. PG
    16 Apr 12
    5:17 pm

  20. Don’t know about embargoes, but compulsive lying by News Corp executives scare the hell out of me. Yet it always comes back eventually to bite their arses.

  21. Greg
    16 Apr 12
    6:49 pm

  22. Dave – while I don’t doubt that you are, if only in your own way, cute – I wasn’t actually using that as a descriptive term for the PR people themselves.

    Journo has hit the nail on the head on every front. The reality is us inexperienced (*cough* over a decade *cough* *cough*) journos in the world of 24 hour news acknowledge only two types of embargos – the ones we want to break because something is actually newsworthy (the minority, in my experience), and the ones we just don’t care about because your product/service/news is only interesting to those making a buck out of it – our readers don’t actually care.

    The problem is you’re talking ‘gentleman’s agreements’ in a world of fiercely competitive people…again, assuming we’re talking real journalism here – not long lunch-type ‘tech’ or games writers. I want to be the first to break a story and I don’t give a toss how hard I have to work to research, interview and write to ensure that’s the case.

    Embargoing something to give me as a journalist time to research and write is all lovely and quaint, but the reality is it’s a line your marketing lecturer spun and you bought hook, line and skiner. I don’t want to release the same article as seven other blokes you’re working (providing the same opportunities to gain information, interviews etc.) from rival publications…I know this will shock you, but that isn’t actually journalism.

  23. Dave
    17 Apr 12
    11:28 am

  24. And see, its this cynicism that I hope will die out with you old journos.

    An embargo actually gives you an opportunity and time to seek out your own information about a particular topic. If you are relying just on the leads given to you by a PR person, which from your response above, its what you do – then you’re not a journalist.

    Having an embargoed release provided to a number of different publications means that if the story is interesting enough, then a savvy journalist should be able to have enough time to pull out an angle that is relevant to their readers. This also ensures that you don’t have the same story as 7 other publications, as you are using your own contacts and your own knowledge of your audience to get a story that is relevant to them.

    So you’re telling me that you would rather take information straight from a press release that has been given to you without embargo and put it straight up on your site or in your publication? And you call yourself a journalist :)

  25. mumbrella
    17 Apr 12
    11:37 am

  26. Hi Dave,

    Some embargoes come with a “no approach” clause – in other words you can’t approach anybody else for comment. I’m sure PRs would say it is a means of stopping a story from leaking early, but it does sometimes feel to me like an attempt to control the angle.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  27. Marie
    17 Apr 12
    12:05 pm

  28. Embargoes are not just about giving journos time to research / write! They are trained to write / research / interview under pressure and to deadline.

    In hard news, embargoes are often about giving the media stories they should have and report on (such as issues relating to national defence / security / troops etc) AND still having the time to speak directly with relevant parties. EG soldiers killed in combat – giving the media what they need but timing its release so parents / family can be properly notified first. Sometimes the journalist gets the story the same time the organisation does – and an embargo is negotiated.

    In the world of entertainment – how else is a newspaper going to publish stories in time and provide current news if there are no embargoes? How will they compete with radio or online? What about magazines? New Idea etc would not be able to run current editorial without the provision of information in time for their publishing deadlines.

    My point is – there is definitely a role for embargoes, albeit different ones for different media / journalists. But across the board – for media relations to work, PR has to view the journalist as their client, and provide reasonable embargoes that are in both parties’ interests and be transparent and in agreeance about what those interests are.

  29. Graham
    17 Apr 12
    7:36 pm

  30. There have been many debates on embargoes – some positive, some not so. Embargoes do have a role in PR, but with logical reasons.

    Greg, not sure whether you work in PR, your comment suggests not. We know it’s not a legal contract.

    The whole purpose of an embargo is typically about timing, and also ensuring multiple news outlets get equal opportunity to run a story that is relevant and works for their deadlines and structures. Also, because we work across multiple geographies, often an important bit of news will go live in the US midnight our time, so the embargo means we can brief reporters during the day so they can develop their own story, with local input.

    It’s pretty simple really. But there are occasions when the embargo is broken, sometimes by accident; other deliberate. It also comes down to the relatioships you have with the media, in terms of trust, etc..

  31. Dave
    17 Apr 12
    10:52 pm

  32. Tim – totally agree with you on the “no approach” angle. It depends however on how big the news is.

    If it is big and popular news (such as say a logies winner), that an outlet knows is going to be well read by the readership, regardless of how many publications it appears in, then they probably have some right to have some say on the angle.

    Im sure if you received a “no approach” clause on a PR release about a shitty little campaign with no relevance, you would go “whatever” and hit delete.

    It works the same way when I send out an embargoed release and within 30 seconds I have a journo on the phone asking for an exclusive. Chances are that if a busy journalist who doesn’t have time to trawl through 1000s of emails a day is calling me back within 30 seconds based on an emailed PR release, then I’m going to figure out that this is newsworthy enough to be published without an exclusive……

  33. Greg
    17 Apr 12
    11:53 pm

  34. Oh, Dave…

    Good to see I’ve gone from inexperienced to part of the old guard in under 24 hours. Truth be told, I’m neither old nor inexperienced. But, hey, why let the truth get in the way of a good press release…

    You’ve pretty much cemented my position in saying ‘then they probably have some right to have some say on the angle’. Mate, a publication has the right to have the entire say on what angle it takes with a story…every time. Not just some of the time – every time. Stop drinking the kool-aid, son.

    Marie is actually correct – there are a few legitimate reasons for using embargos (though, to make up for the inefficiencies of the print medium covering timely events is not one such reason – that is still just maximising the cross-media exposure for your client, not doing journalists a favour). The issue is, these releases are in the minority – more often than not it’s PRs pushing ‘shitty little campaigns’ that they think are the next big thing because their client told them so, when actually nobody gives a toss. Too often the term embargo is used only to inflate the ego of the organisations involved, creating a facade of great importance in their own minds, distributed by ‘PRs’ who are actually new grads that lack either the balls or awareness to actually develop a relationship with journalists – or even an introduction – before laying out the rules of how you’ll cover this news of mucho importantness. Yawn.

    Admittedly, there are good PRs out there. But, like the correct use of embargos, they are flooded by the majority of waffle.

  35. Dave
    18 Apr 12
    2:03 pm

  36. Sorry Greg, fell asleep.

    The short of it. Embargos work, and are used and understood by most of the journalistic profession.

    But yes, they have to be used carefully.

  37. anon1
    20 Apr 12
    10:04 am

  38. Embargoes nearly exclusively cover news that is not amazing news. (Except in the abovementioned case of victim names, but that is a separate situation and more a compassionate withholding than a conventional embargo).

    If a story is huge, it breaks anyway, embargo or not. You can’t embargo hard, breaking news.

    Embargoes are about managing lower-grade announcements, often for logistical purposes in terms of arranging interviews or whatever. Part of the reason that you can rely on journalists to respect them is that breaking them brings no advantage, and just the disadvantage of soured relations. No one’s career is going to escalate from a broken embargo “scoop” – the stories are just never strong enough.