The press embargo. Used extensively in consumer journalism to ensure articles about a particular product, person, company or topic are not published until a specific date and time.
The idea was created to suit magazine publishers, who would need information and photos of a new product a considerable amount of time before daily newspapers and the web. The journalists and photographers would sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) granting them access to the information ahead of its public release date.
Being a technology journalist, I encounter press embargoes on an almost weekly basis where companies want to keep news about (or a review of) a new smartphone, tablet or whatever a secret. I am currently under embargo with two companies, with a third expected to join them next week. Alongside these, I have a product review written and I’m waiting for the green light to say when it can be published.
What are the benefits?
Well, for the companies it means they can synchronise when content about a new product will go live. They get a huge boost in publicity as dozens of news announcements, image galleries, reviews and videos are all dumped onto the web at exactly the same time, often with scheduled tweets to promote each link.
On the other hand, the journalist gets to see products before they are launched, meaning there is often plenty of time to gather thoughts, take good photos and spend time writing content about them. There can be news stories, hands-on first impressions, galleries, videos and comparisons with rivals. The quality of these articles will generally be higher than when a story is rushed out as quickly as possible after an embargo-less announcement - or when filing copy from a press conference.
What about the drawbacks?
Sometimes, companies get very attached to their embargoes and can become aggressive towards any cavalier hack who thinks they can press the ‘publish’ button early.
Ferrari is a good (or bad) example here. Its latest flagship car, called the LaFerrari, was given to journalists to review earlier this year. Each invited writer travelled to Ferrari HQ in Italy, signed an NDA preventing them from publishing their review before 30 April, and drove the car.
This is all par for the course, but those who planned to buy content from the journalists in attendance - one hack might have been a freelancer for several publications, for example - quickly ran into a problem. Ferrari said publications not invited to drive the car themselves could not publish a paid-for or syndicated review until 12 May. Soon after, this slipped to 26 May.
Who would read a review of the car (let alone pay to read it) almost a month after the major car magazines, websites and newspapers had already published theirs?
And if anyone fancied breaking the embargo (thus being first to publish) would be slapped with a €50,000 fine by Ferrari, as stated in the NDA. Would any publication see this as a fair price to pay to get the exclusive? Perhaps...
I’ve never encountered anything quite as extreme but, while getting extra time to write content under embargo is useful, the company and its PR people are always the ones in control. Sure, anyone could publish ahead of time, breaking the embargo and giving everyone else the right to do the same, but this runs the risk of being blacklisted and no longer receiving information or products under embargo.
Some publications are more equal than others
But not everyone gets information ahead of time. Sometimes a press conference will take place with half of the journalists present furiously typing and photographing. Others, however, will have seen the product in advance and have their news story ready to publish right as the conference starts. This turns comical when there’s a delay for some reason, causing dozens of news stories and hands-on reviews to be published before the new product has even been revealed on stage.
Some then barge their way into the product demonstration room and queue up to “get hands-on” and take photos, while those who attended the embargoed pre-briefing need not bother and can head straight for the bar.
Of course, those not invited to a pre-briefing could choose to write their copy up later and produce something of higher quality, but the pressure to be first online is so great this is rarely a consideration. Get in, get out, publish as quickly as possible. It's difficult - especially during a packed trade show with multiple conferences - to do anything else.
What about reporting leaks?
Leaking is rife in technology journalism. Poor quality photos claiming to show a bit of an upcoming phone; a screenshot of a spreadsheet revealing the name of a new tablet in a retailer’s stock inventory; the odd iPhone prototype left in a bar.
Many tech hacks, myself included, publish most of these stories because, to quote many an editor, ‘it’s what the readers want’. People vaccum up every tidbit of news they can when it’s about the next iPhone or the new Samsung Galaxy phone, and we provide it. We don’t publish lies, but if the leak looks to be fairly legitimate we’ll publish it, complete with the usual “take this with a pinch of salt” disclaimer. It’s not Pulitzer prize-winning, but it brings in the hits, which in turn pay the bills.
But what happens when you sign an NDA, see an upcoming product, write a ‘first impressions’ piece and file it, ready and waiting for the embargo to lift in a few weeks’ time - and then there’s a leak about that product?
Do you only write about the leaks you know to be true? Do you write about leaks which you know are completely false, but will be popular? Do you stop writing about leaks entirely and sacrifice the hits they attract?
It’s a bit of a mess, quite frankly. But as I don’t have a solution I’ll continue to ask for content under embargo whenever I can. At least that way I know the quality will be high, even if I’m not the one in control.