Updated: Nov 20
One late night, during my days as a tech journalist, I was huddled with my laptop, passionately penning a story about an up-and-coming startup we’ll call “Company X.”
Company X was hours away from announcing a sizeable Series B round, and had given me an early scoop, trusting me along with some other outlets to keep it under wraps until morning. This was a golden chance to give the story some depth and detail.
Just when I thought everything was going smoothly, a casual Google search stopped me cold. A story published by a different outlet just 30 minutes earlier: "Company X nails Series B round." Somehow, someway, the embargo had been broken.
For journalists, this is an all-too-familiar dance. A company trusts you with their news, you respect the embargo, but somewhere along the line, things go awry.
While it might seem like a minor hiccup, these breaches can shake the foundation of trust between companies and journalists. If you're thinking of sharing your big news, then we have PR tips for your tech startup on dealing with news embargoes. Let's take a moment to unpack why they matter, where they can go wrong, and how to navigate these sometimes murky waters.
What is a news embargo?
Think of an embargo as a pinky promise between a journalist and their source. It's essentially the source saying, "Hey, I've got some juicy news for you, but you can't share it until THIS specific time and date, cool?"
Companies might set up an embargo because they want their big news to make a splash all at once. By telling multiple journalists ahead of time and giving them a chance to prep their stories, they ensure a strong wave of coverage when the news finally drops.
For the journalist, agreeing to an embargo gives them time to research, fact-check, and craft a killer story without the pressure of being scooped by other publications.
Keep in mind, an "exclusive" and an "embargo" are two totally different beasts. When a journalist agrees to an embargo, they're cool with the fact that other publications are also in the know and will release the news at the same time. If they get an exclusive, that's their unique scoop – no other publication has the story.
Now, speaking from my PR corner, I've seen way too many clients spill upcoming news to various journalists, even after they've given an exclusive promise to one. Word of advice? Don't be that client.
How to set up a news embargo
So, you've got some big news to share under embargo? Here's a PR tip: before you go blasting out your press release, first put out feelers to see if journalists are game for the embargo.
A surprising number of PR agencies and companies drop the ball by including the embargo request WITH the news release. Heads up: once a journalist has that news, they can sidestep the embargo and publish whenever they want. And trust me, depending on the news, some journalists won’t think twice about it.
Avoid these common news embargo mistakes for tech companies
Even though embargoes function like a gentleman's agreement rather than an ironclad contract, there are some universal “rules”, which can get broken. And, between you and me? It's usually not the journalist dropping the ball.
Case in point: I once watched a venture firm almost botch their big fund close announcement because a partner couldn't resist spilling the beans to a journalist buddy. And sure enough, that buddy never agreed to an embargo. Here's a PR tip for your tech startup, unless a journalist explicitly agrees to hold off, they're free to hit that 'publish' button, and you're left dealing with a dead embargo.
Here's another classic mix-up: A New York-based journalist gets an embargo for 9:00 am, but the company providing the news catches the story out at 6:00 am. Well, that company is based in San Francisco, but nobody mentioned time zones when the embargo was set. Lesson learned: Always clarify which clock you're watching.
And then there's this gem: A company sends out a press release expecting a detailed article by 10:00 am ON THE SAME DAY. Come on, folks! Journalists aren't just waiting around, twiddling their thumbs. They've got a million stories to juggle. No one's going to whip up a feature-length piece in an hour. Let's be realistic.
Occasionally, and I mean very occasionally, the journalist might be responsible for the slip up here. They agree to an embargo, and for whatever reason, the story gets published early, with no forewarning.
I’ve heard CEOs and marketing executives scream down the phone at journalists for this (keep in mind, it's not always the writer's doing; many times, it's the editors who handle the actual publishing of stories). But that response will likely just damage the relationship. Best practice for these scenarios is to inform them that there was an embargo, thank them for the coverage regardless, and wait for (what will likely be) a sincere apology.
How to handle a broken news embargo
Once an embargo is broken, the story is fair game for all journalists. Say, the New York Times goes early, then the Washington Post is free to publish whenever they please, even if they agreed to the original embargo. I've seen numerous companies get upset with media outlets that don't adhere to already-broken embargoes. Newsflash: that's not how it works.
The first step to avoid broken embargoes is to work with an experienced PR agency (ahem) that understands how this game is played. But even if you already are working with an agency, it’s important to be aware of some best practices if an embargo is broken.
Step One: Apologize (if it’s your fault)
If the screw-up was on your end, own it. Explicitly acknowledge this as a learning moment for your company.
There’s usually little value in throwing around blame, but if a different publication simply broke the embargo and is squarely in the wrong, it's okay to share that information with other upset journalists to provide context.
Step Two: Work to salvage the relationship
When journalists get scooped because of you, chances are they'll be hesitant to engage with you in the future. Recognize the importance of mending the relationship and proactively ask them what it would take to make amends.
Step Three: Get creative with your counteroffer
When things go south or misunderstandings happen, a thoughtful "make-good" can be a bridge back to trust. And it's not always about dangling the carrot of a future exclusive to appease an upset journalist.
Remember that venture firm? They actually managed to prevent a full-blown embargo disaster. Their game plan started with steps 1 and 2. Then, as a peace offering, they set up an exclusive interview with the firm’s founder. This allowed the publication to craft an in-depth story while still respecting the embargo.
Get a PR agency that knows the news embargo game inside out
No tech company aims for just a one-off story. The goal of any PR strategy is sustained, regular coverage, which hinges on fostering genuine, trust-based relationships with journalists.
Navigating the intricate world of embargoes might seem daunting, but armed with these insights and a top-notch PR agency, you'll sail through.
Looking to get your company’s news out there? Contact Mind Meld PR today.