Even though some journalists break the embargoes placed on press releases, PR pros say their benefits make up for less frequent violations. In terms of PR nightmares, it doesn't get much worse than this one. In his April 14 column for the New York Daily News, gossip writer Lloyd Grove caused a major headache for Ogilvy Public Relations and a client, Merck, when he violated an embargo on a press release announcing that celebrity Dick Clark will be a spokesman for the pharma giant on a campaign for an adult-onset diabetes drug.Adding insult to injury, the former Washington Post writer also quoted an Ogilvy staffer's helpless protests effectively confirming that Clark has the disease. Before long, the AP picked up the story, blasting out the celebrity news to publications far and wide, and diverting attention from the subject of the campaign, the new drug. Ogilvy declined to comment on how much damage, if any, Grove's disclosure inflicted on the campaign. Other PR practitioners, however, were less reluctant to discuss the pros and cons of the press embargo, a longtime media relations tool that can be a way to secure in-depth coverage of a client's big announcement or a shortcut to disaster. Most communicators interviewed were squarely in favor of using embargoes, largely because journalists find them useful and, most agree, honor them in the vast majority of cases - even in a news-gathering environment that, everyone also agrees, is more fiercely competitive than ever. They say the main advantage of giving a reporter some time to research a story before it goes into wide release is that it offers the journalist a chance to put breaking news in a broader context that benefits everyone: the reporter, who has a better story to submit to his editor; the client, who is getting deeper and perhaps more prominent coverage; and the audience, who is getting a fuller story. "Press embargoes are a vital part of communications, both from the position of a reporter and from the position of a company or a government agency," said Michael Robinson, director at Levick Strategic Communications and a former New York Times reporter and Securities and Exchange Commission spokesman. "Issues today are so complex that there isn't anybody I know that wouldn't relish more time to be able to get it right. Journalists want to get it right; it's their job to get it right. And deadline pressures are so tough - especially in a 24-hour news cycle - that any opportunity to help them get it right is something they want to do." Even Karen Duffin, an account manager at Bite Communications, who was recently burned by a reporter who didn't adhere to an agreed-upon embargo, still plans to use them. Instead of doing away with what she's found to be a valuable tool, the incident, in which a reporter agreed to an embargoed interview with Duffin's client and then turned around and wrote a story right away, will lead her to not share sensitive information with that reporter. "I won't trust him again in that way," she says. A matter of trust Most of the anxiety over embargoes comes down to the question of how much trust can be placed in individual journalists. Often this trust is maintained by the fact that most journalists will stay true to an embargo. "To a certain extent, embargoes are self-enforcing," says Robinson. He says that when he worked in communications for the SEC, he dealt regularly with a group of two dozen reporters. If an embargo were broken, there would have been two effects. First, Robinson would have been slow to return that reporter's calls and, second, other reporters on the beat would have gotten angry or frustrated with the offender. "There's both a gentlemen's agreement and one that has some teeth to it," Robinson says. Not surprisingly, the ethical dimensions of the issue are murkier than the pragmatic ones because there are two types of embargoes: those that are agreed upon by a reporter and those that aren't. The latter kind are plentiful, as unsolicited press releases with embargo dates are constantly blasted to legions of reporters. "Journalists should keep agreements that they make, unless there's a very compelling public interest that causes them to believe that the information is so important that whatever agreement they made is not binding," explains Aly Colon, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school in St. Petersburg, FL. "But in order to have a contract, you have to have two people agree to it, and I don't see how you have that with a unilateral, multiple-source embargo sent out to anybody who happens to see it." Robinson seconds this. "If you're going to extend someone an embargo, then you actually have to have that conversation with the reporter or the editor, much like the conversation that goes on about what's on background and what's on the record," he says. At the same time, the kind of news organization in question can influence the journalist's standards - for instance, says Duffin, online outlets are riskier because they're so scoop-driven. She adds that some organizations have out-and-out policies against following embargoes. Some require that reporters get any embargo agreement cleared by an editor. One prominent paper, The Wall Street Journal, has clear guidelines on using embargoes. Barney Calame, a deputy managing editor, says, "We honor embargoes that have been negotiated with a reporter or editor. We encourage reporters to check with an editor before agreeing to any unusual embargoes. We urge staffers to use special caution in agreeing to any embargo on the financial results of corporations." Dealing with violations Many organizations make widespread use of embargoes. Medical journals in particular regularly put out their findings in embargoed releases well before the publication date, giving reporters plenty of time to work with the information. Two years ago, this procedure caused a firestorm when the Detroit Free Press wrote a story on hormone-replacement therapy. The article was based on research that was about to appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association and was embargoed. (The journalist maintained that she reported the story independently.) Since then, JAMA has launched a password-protected website for the media that is filled with embargoed material. "We make sure the embargo policy is marked about a zillion times," says Jann Ingmire, the media relations manager for JAMA, adding that she and the journal's editor regularly survey journalists on whether this is a valuable service. "Reporters overwhelmingly like the embargo," she says. "They like having that time to work on the stories. They understand that if a researcher is getting a bunch of media calls, they have a better chance if they have a couple days." Ingmire says that the few embargo breaks since the Free Press incident have been followed by apologies from the reporter or news organization. The Free Press, however, has yet to apologize and so does not have access to the media website, Ingmire says. Most PR pros interviewed who have an embargo horror story have just one, which typically stems from an overeager or irresponsible journalist and does not suggest an across-the-board unwillingness on the part of reporters to heed embargoes. Those interviewed advise that when using embargoes, it's important to know who you can trust, to be wary of time differences that can thwart an embargo, and, above all, to keep a record of the agreements that you make. "If you're scared, get it in writing, then you can always go back to editors," Duffin says. "Ultimately they do care because they know that they are shutting out a source."