Anyone who has been involved in communications for a significant amount of time recognizes the press landscape is vastly different than it was in the early 1980s. As the media landscape evolves, so are the fundamentals of public relations practice, including media relations. One tactic that is not well understood is the use of a press embargo.
What is a press embargo?
J.J. Colao shared an excellent definition of embargo in his Forbes article, Eight PR terms you should know but only vaguely understand. He said, "An embargo is an agreement between a source and a media outlet that information—often contained in a press release—will not be published until a predetermined time."
The key word in his definition is "agreement." An agreement is what one must have with the media before releasing information to a journalist. Particularly if you are pitching a story as an exclusive, a publicist must also keep her side of the agreement with the journalist and do her best to ensure that the story doesn’t get out elsewhere.
This month, Daniel Bentley, editor of Fortune, tweeted, "Amazing how many PRs think they can put EMBARGOED in an email subject line like it’s a magic spell. Both parties have to agree to it, y’all."
Amazing how many PRs think they can put EMBARGOED in an email subject line like it's a magic spell. Both parties have to agree to it, y'all.— Daniel Bentley (@DJBentley) April 10, 2017
There have been PRWeek articles about the dos and don’ts of embargoes, why embargoes don’t work, and the relevance of embargoes in a 24/7 news cycle. Rather than rehash them, let’s look at how an embargo can work well in the age of instant communications.
How two banks used an embargo when announcing their merger
In 2015, our PR agency worked on communications for the combination of two regional banks. The two entities had long histories in their respective communities and were going to become the largest community bank in their county. One element of the integrated marketing and public relations plan was to inform all audiences of the banks’ intent to legally unify.
As part of that announcement, it was important to the banks to let their employees know what was happening before the story broke in the media. We also knew that once the news was out to the employees, it was only a matter of minutes before the media got hold of the story.
In this instance, we decided to use a limited press embargo, a public relations tactic we employ very rarely and only in justified circumstances. We reached out to two trusted reporters, one for a regional business publication and the other for the local newspaper, told them we had an important story that was going to break the following day at 8 a.m., and asked if they would agree to an embargo until that exact time.
The key to success was the long-standing relationships we had with these two respected journalists. We had worked with them for many years, on stories large and small, and knew they could be trusted. If they agreed to an embargo, we knew they would keep their word.
Once we had a verbal agreement, we sent them the bank-approved press release with the embargo date and time at the top. This gave both reporters an opportunity to shape their stories, verify facts, conduct their own research, and interview the bank CEOs while still "breaking" the story the next day in their respective news outlets. They also both understood that they were getting an exclusive for their particular audience, and that we would issue the press release at 8:30 a.m. to the rest of our media list.
In this instance, the embargo tactic worked well for all parties: the banks, the media outlets, and our agency.
Looking back at embargoed press releases
In my earlier days as a PR professional, we could embargo a press release or news pitch and almost always trust that the embargo would be honored by the media. This meant sending a press release in the mail, or, by the late 80s, via fax, to a reporter with either the words "not for immediate release" or "embargoed until X date," and the recipient would almost always honor the embargo request. While it didn’t require a telephone call or a meeting of the minds and there were no guarantees, journalists knew they could rely on publicists as valuable sources of information and experts only as long as the publicists could trust the journalists.
Fast forward to 2017. How times have changed. The daily media cycle has turned into an immediate free for all. News is broken in real time, not hours or even days later, and many times, it is being broken on social media by third parties. In recent days, a passenger was removed violently by United Airlines from his overbooked flight and the world witnessed video of it almost as it was happening with almost immediate social media backlash. Mylan recalled batches of its infamous EpiPen just months after its EpiPen pricing crisis, and users learned about the recall on Facebook and Twitter well before pharmacies and doctors had the opportunity to inform their patients.
While the pace of the news cycle accelerates, PR practitioners and their clients can still use tried-and-true media relations tools such as embargoes to manage their messages, with the understanding that these tactics should be employed with a great deal of planning and care.