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



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