What’s the Deal with News Embargoes Anyway?

Mar 20, 2018
At their core, embargoes are just another tactic to control and influence media coverage
The founder and former co-editor of TechCrunch may have declared the death of the news embargo in 2008, but a decade later the embargo remains an important, if diminishing, tool in the PR toolbox. A paper from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism sums up the current reality of news embargoes well – under threat, but not extinct.
The TechCrunch founder’s major gripe with embargoes is that news outlets routinely break them, especially when communications professionals blast out supposedly embargoed content without first receiving agreement from the recipients of their blast. (That’s a big no-no by the way. Find out why below.)
On the PR side, however, embargoes can help ensure more in-depth and accurate reporting on our news by giving journalists the time they need to fully explore the topic. They can also be helpful for timing the publication of news with a particular event. 
But before we go any further let’s take a step back and first define what embargoes are.

What is a news embargo?

Wikipedia has a short and simple definition: “a news embargo is a request by a source that the information provided by that source not be published until a certain date.” 
Request is an important word in this definition. As with speaking off the record, on background or not for attribution, embargoes aren’t legally binding contracts between a source and a journalist. They are honor-code agreements whose terms must be negotiated and accepted by both parties before the information is shared with the journalist. 
Do not send information you intend to be embargoed to a journalist who has not yet agreed to abide by the embargo. I repeat. Do not send embargoed information to a journalist if he or she hasn’t yet agreed to the terms of the embargo. Doing otherwise will likely result in journalists prematurely breaking your embargo.

Why and when should you use a news embargo?

At their core, embargoes are just another tactic to control and influence media coverage. Again Wikipedia has a pretty good summary: “They are often used by businesses making a product announcement, by medical journals, and by government officials announcing policy initiatives; the media is given advance knowledge of details being held secret so that reports can be prepared to coincide with the announcement date and yet still meet press time.” 
They can help to increase the chance key reporters will cover your announcement. For example, an embargo allows you to share advance copies of a new report with target journalists so they can have several days to digest the report’s findings and write their story with the knowledge that their direct competitors and wider media universe will not have access to the report until the established time. In this way, embargoes can operate as “exclusives-lite” where, instead of one outlet, several outlets have earlier access to your news. This approach can also help to create buzz if several outlets all report the story at the same time.
To be sure, even on the PR side there isn’t universal agreement that embargoes remain relevant or useful. There are many differing opinions in a robust discussion thread on the Progressive Communicators of DC listserv. (If you aren’t already a member of the private list, subscribe by emailing this address.)
One progressive communicator in D.C. wrote, “People seem to think there is some special magic to an ‘embargo,’ when, in fact, is a distinctly retro idea that harkens back to the days of yore when there were distinct news cycles and everything was not 24/7/365. Simple heads-up pitching and distribution would achieve the same results.” He continued, “This illusion is that there is an enormous media audience out there for an embargo, which is rarely the case. It’s almost always better to target in advance and reach out to the right 40-75 key reporters.” 
Another commentator pushed back. “Embargoes don't make sense for many stories, but I think they still do for some stories because they give reporters the lead time to digest the details of a more complex story and a chance to line up local people for interviews,” he wrote.

What is the best time for embargoes to expire?

For U.S. news, communications professionals have traditionally set embargoes for 12:01 a.m. East Coast time to allow for morning radio and television to pick up the story. 
But in the online, 24/7 news environment journalists and communicators have been pressured to move away from this traditional standard. For example, many newspapers routinely publish their next-day print stories online the evening before. An embargo ending between 8 and 10 p.m. could then make more sense. 
In other circumstances, you may want to schedule your embargo with the start of an event where you will also break the same news. 
The best time can really depend on the story and the needs of the journalists with whom you are working. Try to be flexible to accommodate those needs and do not feel restrained by the 12:01 a.m. standard. No matter when you set your embargo, be specific. Give a precise hour, not just a date. This is especially important when you are working with a number of journalists. If you’re vague and one journalist publishes early, you may have just unwittingly burned some bridges.