Modern PR Pros and the Breaking News Dilemma

Perhaps you’ve seen the controversy around embargoes in recent months, or you may be blissfully unaware. But the issue of how best to handle important news (a big product rollout, for example) is always an important one. What does the recent commotion mean for independent PR pros, who are usually operating without the clout of a big agency name?

Once upon a time, PR pros could plan a very neat and tidy campaign around important news. Publications were briefed under Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) on a carefully timed schedule (first quarterlies, then monthlies, then bimonthlies, then weeklies) that resulted in a barrage of news coverage all hitting the shelves at the same time. There was little fear involved in this process, and it was a glorious time to be alive!

But embargoes have been a tricky business since the dawn of Internet news in the early 1990s. I witnessed this first-hand many years ago when I worked as a subcontractor supporting the rollout of a highly anticipated technology product. One week before the announcement, the primary team conducted briefings with the key reporters at weekly publications (as they always had before). But the Internet outlets were so new that the account leads didn’t think about the role of online news channels (ZDNet, IDG and the like). You can guess what happened next: all of these briefed reporters passed the news to their online colleagues to run, and the online-only outlets were plenty steamed that they hadn’t been included. Woops.

I tell this story to illustrate that these issues aren’t new. As long as reporters make their living breaking stories, there will always be some who are willing to tick off a source in return for near-term success, so there is no room for error on the part of PR professionals. With every advance in technology or evolution in the media, the rules change, and for those of us who operate independently, it’s even more important to keep abreast of the current best practices.

What To Do Today?
The message is this: proceed, but do so with caution.

1. First, ask yourself if your news is worthy of an embargo. If your client is poised to unveil a truly important new product, the answer may be yes. If you’re announcing your new VP of Sales, of course not. Saving embargoes for top announcements will result in your contacts to taking you more seriously when you do have breaking news.

2. Always reach out to your key relationships in advance and ask if they are honoring embargoes (and do not include information about the nature of the announcement). Only those who respond in the affirmative should receive your information in advance, or you may find your email pitch posted to a blog.

Also, note that I said reach to out to your “key relationships.” Beware that TechCrunch has publicly stated that they will lie and say they honor embargoes, and then run the story anyway. Other large blogs in non-technology industries may have similar views. So, if you aren’t familiar with an outlet or its stance, err on the side of caution.

As Brain Solis of PR 2.0 has noted, “I guarantee you greater results and stronger relationships if you work with a smaller group of trusted and relevant contacts rather than embargo spamming everyone from the A-list to the C-list in your wish list.”

3. When using embargoes, never offer an exclusive to a subset of outlets. For example, don’t work with a group of reporters and require them to hold the news until Tuesday, but then green light your top targets to run the news on Monday. I can’t believe people do this, but I’ve heard enough tales to know it must happen. Offer basic decency and respect, and you’re more likely to receive it in return.

4. You should also be aware that, because of the hoopla among bloggers, some of the reporters you reach out to may just assume the embargo will be broken. If someone breaks the story, have your “Plan B” in place just in case. But as Doug Haslam of SHIFT Communications notes, despite a reporter’s expressed concerns his firm used an embargo successfully.

This may be a little controversial, but I’ve always felt that embargoes are more of a favor to the journalist than to PR. If reporters would prefer to scramble around trying to throw together a breaking story before their competitors, be my guest! In truth, embargoes help everyone, since the resulting coverage is usually more in-depth and accurate than it would be otherwise, so it’s the media’s audience that truly benefits the most.

Many top reporters and bloggers continue to understand the advantages, and there’s no need to declare embargoes “dead” or abandon them completely. Used carefully and infrequently, I believe embargoes remain a useful tactic.

What do you think? Have you learned any lessons (the hard way or otherwise) about how to handle big news?

More posts in the Modern PR series:

Like this post? Consider subscribing to Solo PR Pro, either by e-mail or RSS Reader. It’s free!

Photo credit: Picture Perfect Pose

  • Handling it effectively really is key. As you said, release to all in the same time period and don’t play favorites. Pitch first to those who have agreed to be pitched to AND might have an interest in the story. Don’t wreck your relationships by a blind smattering of pitches to any and all-unless they want to be on a general list for all releases. Respect, integrity and truth matter above everything else.

    Julie Bonn Heath’s last blog post..Increasing Traffic to Your Blog with Twitter

  • Kellye Crane

    @Julie- I think you nailed it when you said “don’t wreck your relationships.” Done correctly, embargoes can strengthen your key relationships (poorly done embargoes will do just the opposite). Thanks for this perspective.

  • Dan Keeney, APR

    Kellye: great post and a good discussion for the PR and client communities to be having. The big losers in all of this is the audience who used to be able to consume information in context because journalists could gather the ancillary information needed to really explain the story. I continued the conversation on this topic on my blog, http://www.theprcounselor-blog.com.

    Dan Keeney, APR’s last blog post..New Rules to Guide Use of News Embargoes