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In embargo we trust

July 16: Back when Reuters Health executive editor Ivan Oransky was in college, the science and medicine journal embargo system worked through a series of faxes. Today, all he has to do is register and click on a PDF. With a touch of the mouse, it could easily be sent to anyone.

“The Web has had a dramatic effect on the embargo, even if you think you’re sending it to a select group of people, it can get anywhere very quickly,” said Oransky, who also pens the science- and medicine-based blog Embargo Watch. The Web has also allowed for broken embargoes to be monitored much more easily.

Over the course of three months this year, Oransky noted that 21 embargoes had been broken in the scientific arena, bringing the frequency to more than once a week. He doesn’t cover all the breaks, he noted, because “this happens so often it’s distracting from writing some bigger posts.”

Embargo “breaks” have been a frequent topic in the news over the last couple of years, not only in the science and medicine fields but also in technology, which is another niche where embargoes are plentiful. As a result of countless broken embargoes, some news organizations will no longer accept embargoed information. TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington has decried the use of embargoes and pronounced publicly that he would no longer honor them. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reportedly does not accept them unless they’re being given an exclusive.

Sometimes journalists are accused of breaking embargoes when they didn’t. Just recently, Sunday Times reporter Jonathan Leake reported on a test that could predict the age when women will reach menopause. The organization had placed it under embargo and was outraged when the story came out. But Leake was never sent the information, since he’s already been barred from their media lists, and did his own reporting on the story. Even so, European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology’s press officer sent out an announcement claiming he had broken it. “And therein lies the illogicality of the ESHRE position. Since Leake and his paper are barred from the organization’s media database and website, how can they have been guilty of breaking an embargo?” wrote The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade.

Other issues with embargoes are irritating reporters like the Associated Press did when it leaked CNN’s embargoed iPhone story last September, which pushed Reuters’ Robert MacMillan to also release the story early. Meanwhile, Venture Beat promises to honor them, but announced that if a PR firm gives a select publication the go-ahead to publish prior to the agreed embargo time, they won’t accept embargoes from them.

Media Shift editor Mark Glaser only accepts embargoed information under special circumstances. “I don’t like them because they set up a controlled environment where the person doing PR or who has a story to pitch is in control and the journalist loses control,” he said in an e-mail interview. “It feels like a false mechanism for doing news on the timing of the person spreading news.” Like the popular kids in school, only favored journalists are privy to the gossip when organizations selectively choose who will be in on the embargo. “This gives unfair advantage to those ‘chosen’ outlets and upsets everyone else,” Glaser said. The reverse of this may also be true. Oransky pointed out that there is “sort of an embargo overload” going on. Some companies just embargo everything to everyone, he noted. “I think the question is who is benefitting from these embargoes and are a lot of associations trying to impose too much control over coverage?” he said.

Certain techniques, like organizations embargoing information that they’ve made public on their website, defeats the principle of the embargo. “I give you a piece of paper that everyone in the world has access to and I say please don’t write about that – that doesn’t make any logical sense,” Oransky said. Short notice and not considering time zones are also embargo no-no’s. “Reporters nowadays have an even lower tolerance for nonsense because they’re under so much more pressure than they were before,” he said. But it’s not only journalists who are frustrated. Oransky said many seasoned PR professionals are throwing their hands in the air.

Morgan McLintic, executive vice president at LEWIS PR, said the global communications agency has established a policy on the use of embargoes. “We established this policy since we feel embargoes can benefit both clients and reporters if done well. Sadly, some embargoes are not run properly – e.g., side deals or vague timeframes – which undermines the approach for everyone,” said McLintic in an e-mail interview. We wanted reporters and the industry in general to know what they were getting when they signed up to an embargo from LEWIS. And we wanted to create a framework for others to use.”

LEWIS uses embargoes in cases when the news is “significant and complex,” and needs advanced explaining, he said, such as a major product launch. Any embargo breaks he has experienced have usually been due to a mistake rather than “mischief” he noted. “The challenge is that the bigger the news and the more relevant an embargo might be, the more tempting it is to jump the gun. In an online media landscape, first wins,” he said.

Although Oransky believes that embargoes can hurt healthy competition when journalists rely on them instead of sniffing out enterprise stories, he doesn’t believe they will go obsolete. Indeed, theoretically he believes they can be beneficial when done right by allowing a reporter to analyze a study and talk to outside sources.

McLintic echoes the sentiment while emphasizing the relationship between reporter and PR professional. “If you have a complex story to tell, and lots of interested publications, you need a mechanism to brief them in advance. Reporters don’t want to miss out on a key story or get the facts wrong,” he said. “A well-run embargo is a win all around. The challenge is in building trust so that the embargo holds. A policy is part of that, a track record of doing it well is another.”

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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