An embargo is an agreement, not a crypto PR hype tactic

An embargo is an agreement, not a crypto PR hype tactic
People & culture
Credit: Darren Joseph
  • Crypto PRs have seized on embargoes to promote their clients.
  • Their misuse of embargoes is hurting reporting on the industry.

One of the least understood aspects of journalism is the news embargo. Not all journalists know how it works. Most readers are probably unaware that it exists.

Embargoes were originally agreements between reporters and government agencies or academic journals.

“Embargoes used to be a mutual agreement to help distribute complex material in an accurate way,” DL News’ Editor in Chief Trista Kelley told me.

Journalists were given access to complex or potentially market-moving information so they had time to digest and research it before writing stories that non-specialists could understand.

The agreement was conditional upon reporters not publishing their stories before a specified date.

That dynamic has shifted, Trista said.

Now, public relations firms impose embargoes on all kinds of information which they distribute on behalf of their clients.

That can include official announcements, financial data, product releases, and results of opinion polls.

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In the world of crypto, where hype and attention are themselves a type of currency, crypto PRs have seized on embargoes to promote their clients.

It’s also a young industry, where inexperience among founders, agencies, and journalists can exacerbate confusion and mishaps — such as trying to retract releases after they’ve gone live.

“Organisations now blanket everyone in an aim for a mass blast effect,” Kelley said. “And nothing is agreed between two parties at all, it’s instead a diktat.”

A shrinking media industry, with fewer PR firm clients to go around, has probably exacerbated the pressure to ramp up the hype, she added.

A power play

Vince Kiernan, author of Embargoed Science, agreed that the purpose of the embargo had changed.

He is dean of the Metropolitan School of Professional Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, and a former science journalist with a PhD in mass communication.

In the past, embargoes were “based on the notion that journalists were a really small group of people who would police themselves,” he told me. Embargoes have since become “a power play” to drum up publicity.

“The key thing about the embargo is the release time,” said Kiernan.

“If it’s cleverly determined, it can get you a great splash of publicity at a time that you think is advantageous.”

The publicists also sometimes impose additional conditions, in particular to prevent reporters from talking to other sources before publication.

Ivan Oransky, founder of Embargo Watch, a blog tracking how scientific embargoes affect news coverage, said he, too had noted an increase in the use of news embargoes.

“Embargoes require mutual agreement. That’s always been the case,” said Oransky, editor in chief of The Transmitter, an online publication about neuroscience research.

“At risk of blaming the victim, it behooves journalists to stand up and say, ‘We didn’t agree to this. You’re providing information, and we’re going to run with it as we see fit.’”

There’s a risk that if journalists reject the embargo system, companies will withhold information, he said.

“But these are not companies that are particularly interested in long-term relationships or access. These are companies that want journalists to be stenographers.”

Public relations firms are using embargoes to “gin up interest in stories that aren’t actually very interesting,” Oransky went on.

A former science writer, Kiernan said: “Embargoes incentivise journalists to spend a lot of time writing stories about journal articles” when they could be investigating more serious subjects such as scientific fraud and abuse.

Putting the word embargo at the top of a press release has the psychological impact of saying This Is Important.

Even when unintentional, it attracts a reporter’s attention, makes demands on their time and may distort their priorities.

When embargoes work

Some kinds of embargoes can, nevertheless, benefit reporters, as I found when I was correspondent for AFP international news agency in Australia in the 1990s.

The federal government released its annual budget statement to reporters in a locked room three hours before the finance minister presented it to Parliament. Treasury officials were on hand to answer questions as we wrote our stories away from the hubbub of a newsroom.

Government agencies often use this tactic, not least because embargoed information can move markets.

The advantage of a lock-in was that “you are quite sure who has access to the information,” Kiernan said. “Their access to the outside world is cut off.”

That is not true of most embargoed information, which is distributed by email.

The cost to journalists of embargoed information is reduced independence, Kiernan added.

“In that case you’re not doing journalism anymore, you’re doing PR.”

You might think that people in communications would be interested in journalists and their needs, and in building professional relationships with them.

My experience in writing this column suggests that most of them couldn’t care less.

I asked 10 PR firms – eight of which are among the world’s largest — to answer some questions about embargoes. All had previously sent information under embargo to DL News. Presumably, they consider it a trustworthy news organisation.

All ignored my request. One of the two smaller companies replied by sending me an embargoed press release. The other said it would respond by the weekend of April 6.

I’m still waiting.

Do you have any opinions about PR firms and their influence on the media? If so, you can share them with me at robert@dlnews.com.