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Embargo vs. exclusive

A few days ago I caught an interesting post from Katie Roof, VC / deal reporter for Bloomberg and overall highly-regarded tech journalist, who has been one of the several lately to comment on the embargo vs. exclusive problem in the PR / Media world:

The post isn’t interesting because of its subject matter, embargo vs. exclusive debates have been held on public and private forums for a long time, well beyond the start of my career.  What was interesting was that this part  – “…giving the same story to multiple news outlets…regardless of whether the news outlets are generally direct competitors with each other”  – is really what I’d come to believe was the definition of “under embargo.”

I agree with Katie. If a media outlet is told they have an exclusive, they should be the first and only one breaking the actual news. If multiple journalists and outlets are publishing similar news at the same time, that’s an embargo lifting.

Per my definition, offering a journalist a story idea under embargo means “hey, we think your readers/viewers would have interest in this story, so we’re giving you advanced notice before it breaks. In full transparency, we are offering it to other journalists as well. Happy to set up interviews.” 

Often this works well, and prominent media outlets will publish their stories at the same time as trade, regional/local, bloggers, etc. As long as everyone knows the news was provided in advance to multiple journalists and outlets, then when that embargo time lifts, there should be no sad faces.

However, when pitching a story under embargo, there have been many instances where a reporter with a prominent publication such as Bloomberg, WSJ, New York Times, TechCrunch or several others have responded with “Sure, I’m interested, but we’d need the exclusive.”

Fair enough. If a reporter asks for the exclusive, there are really two answers – yes or no. If the answer is yes, you can make requests i.e. “will you interview the CEO?” and others, but you are committing to that media outlet breaking the story alone. If you answer no because you want more media coverage and prefer the embargo route, then at least you were transparent and honest, and I hope you get something better.

Now it’s decision time on embargo vs. exclusive. Let’s eliminate one thing immediately, and that’s misleading the journalist, or “bending the rules” as Katie noted.

You do not say yes to Bloomberg, then yes to TechCrunch. An exclusive does not mean you choose who and how many people run a story.

You do not say yes to a financial media outlet, then a regional paper, then a top trade pub. There is no such thing as an industry exclusive, only an exclusive.

You do not give the same unique quotes you gave one to another. A press release for mass media consumption is more than fine, but unique commentary considered exclusive should not be shared with multiple journalists.

And you absolutely do not give an exclusive news-break time to one journalist and have other reporters running the same story minutes after. Fortune publishing at 7:00am, The Verge publishing at 7:01am, and CNET publishing at 7:02am are not successful exclusives, and you’re about to royally piss some folks off.

But there are nuances, aren’t there?

Once a story runs, period, that story is fair game to any journalist who wants to write about it. They can reach out to the company’s PR firm, or directly to the corporate CEO themselves, or they can just run the damn thing based on what they’re finding online. That’s expected.

As evidenced by Katie’s Twitter post thread, multiple people feel like once the exclusive story runs – that’s it. The CEO or other corporate spokespersons don’t do follow-up interviews on the same topic. To some PR folks, whichever media outlet ran the exclusive wins the day, and everyone else is forced to work off a press release distributed over a wire, or simply re-write a version of the exclusive story.

This seems constricting. What’s the point of media relations and transparent communications in general if you can’t speak to reporters who are asking important questions? Most quality reporters are not trying to write the same story as the top-tier media outlet who broke news. In fact, most are trying to find different angles so their stories are equally compelling.

For this reason, I have no problem giving one media outlet an exclusive and then after it runs, working with other journalists to develop their stories.

And what about timing? How much of a head start should the exclusive-worthy media outlet receive? I posed this question in Katie’s thread, and thought this answer from Michael Selvidge was a good one:

Yes Michael, memories are long! Like Jordan vs. LeBron or The Beatles vs. Rolling Stones, the embargo vs. exclusive discussion shall rage on for all of eternity. But it doesn’t have to be so. Focus on shooting the reporter straight about your intentions regarding exclusivity and timing, and you may find yourself on the right side of some good stories.

This is why the FischTank PR team prides itself on its reputation for aggressive but transparent media relations. We are also hiring, as I made clear in the same Twitter thread when I spotted an inquiry from a college student asking Katie for clarification. If interested in working with FischTank PR, please reach out to careers@fischtankpr.com. If you want to consider working with us, please reach out to letswork@fischtankpr.com


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Eric Fischgrund

Eric Fischgrund is a father, husband, entrepreneur, writer, sports fan, music-lover, and founder and CEO of FischTank PR, a public relations and marketing firm based in NYC.

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