Asking journalists to sign NDAs before you give them a story is illogical - and has wider implications for news

Have you heard the one about a PR who asked a journalist to sign an NDA? It made a good story...

The words ‘non-disclosure’ are contrary to the reason journalists exist, argues Gus Sellitto
The words ‘non-disclosure’ are contrary to the reason journalists exist, argues Gus Sellitto

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are yet again stirring debate in the media industry.

Recent complaints made by journalists on Twitter purport to reveal a trend in which PRs are asking journalists to sign NDAs before revealing details of things like product launches.


To ask a journalist to sign an NDA before you reveal something news-worthy to them is completely illogical.

The very words 'non-disclosure' are completely contrary to the reason journalists exist - to 'disclose news’ and to bring information into the public domain.

But not only is it counter intuitive. It’s also potentially damaging to the relationship PRs have with key journalists they regularly work with.

Which in turn means it’s potentially damaging to your career as a PR, your agency, and, eventually, the PR industry overall.

The PR-journalist relationship is built on trust: the PR trusts the journalist not to release information too soon or give it to anyone else; journalists rely on PRs to give them exclusives – and being trustworthy facilitates the ease with which a PR will approach them.

Journalists have no long-term interest in breaking trust.

Giving a journalist an exclusive on a good story means you have a much better chance to help shape that story before it comes into the public domain.

Using an NDA to try to achieve the same purpose, seems to me to be trying to gag the journalist and is doomed to fail.

A national journalist I approached for this piece thought I was joking when I asked if he’d ever consider signing one.

Gus Sellitto, managing director of Byfield Consultancy  

So, why ask a journalist to sign an NDA?

My sense is that companies - concerned about IP, data leaks and competitors getting hold of their trade secrets – are putting pressure on their product design, marketing, advertising and, ultimately in-house legal teams, and this pressure is filtering down to the in-house PR team and to their PR agencies.

Is there ever a place for a PR to ask a journalist to sign an NDA?

Perhaps in an investigative story of national importance, that could bring down a company or uncover a major scandal, and where absolute certainty over facts is needed prior to publication.

These stories and situations are rare, and in the PR-journalist relationship, the NDA is almost always overkill, especially for news like product launches, which is, generally, pretty positive news.

Making it a condition of the receipt of information tells them that you, as a PR, automatically do not trust them.

And it has wider implications for the news we read.

In the UK, there are strict rules on fair reporting in the media industry. There are checks and balances in place in which publications can be redressed, ultimately through courts, if inaccurate information is reported.

For a product launch, or frankly any day-to-day commercial matter, an NDA is totally inappropriate.

How widespread this trend in the use of NDAs is remains to be seen, but a national journalist I approached for this piece thought I was joking when I asked if he’d ever consider signing one.

For me, the primary function of media will always be to disclose information; the non-disclosure agreement has very little place.

Gus Sellitto is managing director of Byfield Consultancy

Thumbnail pic credit: designer491/Getty Images

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