Opinion: Should I break a press release embargo?

Colin Kelly looks at the rules and expectations surrounding embargos, and if you should break them, for RadioToday.

As a lifelong radio lover and a former journalist I’m interested by the reaction to Amol Rajan’s breaking of the embargoed news release announcing Bauer Radio’s forthcoming launch of their new Scala Radio station, which includes Simon Mayo in its presenter line up. The row broke while I was in a room training PR professionals in the art of interacting with journalists, so this was a topical issue and one we had a great discussion about.

Some industry figures have expressed their dismay on social media that Amol would break an embargo, and RadioToday, said it was disappointing he didn’t play ball.

I think Amol said it best himself, when he responded to one of his critics on Twitter, by saying ‘That’s not quite how this journalism thing works’. I think he’s spot on.

The BBC’s Media Correspondent shouldn’t feel any pressure to abide by an embargo set by Bauer’s communications team. He owes them nothing and they’ll take what he decides to give them. That’s the way it works. The only exception would be stock market sensitive information (where breaking the embargo is a criminal offence) or where the journalist’s relationship with the PR professional is so strong that he wouldn’t risk their wrath. And the advice I give to PR professionals is to cultivate proper, mutually beneficial relationships with journalists so that becomes the case.

Embargoes, when used for this purpose, are a relic. They exist primarily to keep print journalists happy and should be anathema to broadcast journalists such as Amol. He’s done the right thing in this instance. As the BBC’s Media Correspondent he cannot afford to play second fiddle to national newspapers all the time. The use of an embargo here is about Bauer and to an extent Simon Mayo attempting to control the information being published. Why on earth should the BBC or any journalist feel the need to go along with that? Journalism is about the truth, not about respecting Bauer or anyone else’s ‘launch’.

In this case, we all knew what Bauer was doing. The anonymous Radio Goss Twitter feed was ahead of everyone. Amol probably knew. Someone might have told him earlier and the embargoed press release merely confirmed what he already knew. That’s good, solid responsible journalism.

What might have happened of course, in the process, is that Amol has caused a degree of upset within the Bauer ranks. He might have upset their PR team. A smart journalist would take a calculated gamble that his position is superior to theirs in this transaction and that even though he’s upset them, they still need him and they’ll be back next time.

I think he’s absolutely (no pun intended) right.

Colin Kelly is a communications consultant and trainer at ColinKelly.net

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17 Comments
  1. Jeff Featherstone says

    The difficulty will be that there will be occasions when the BBC issues an embargoed press release themselves. He who lives by the sword…

    1. Colin Kelly says

      Good point. That’s why BBC News operates independently to the BBC and there have been occasions where BBC News has disregarded a BBC press office embargo. It’s all a sign of healthy journalism and something we should be proud of.

  2. Adam Bowie says

    I agree that the 00:01 embargoed press release is a relic from the days when print media was all-powerful. It largely existed to ensure that the story made the newspapers the following day. In today’s more digital world, midnight might not be the best time to allow a story to be reported.

    And if someone sends you a press release, unprompted, with an embargo, then of course you are under no legal obligation not use it. It’s not as though you’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement.

    However, if you burn your bridges, with the press team at an organisation, you may find your name off the email list next time they have some news to share. You may instead find yourself playing catch-up while all your competitors have already written and published their stories with appropriate images, video and follow-up reporting.

    Just remember that if a PR department no longer trusts you, you may not be the first port of call for that next exclusive story.

  3. Colin Kelly says

    Agreed Adam. But PR departments should NEVER trust journalists. And in this case, it’s hardly a great betrayal is it?! He might be off the Christmas card list but I’d be astonished if they stopped dealing with him entirely. It’s all fine and healthy. Good PRs and good journalists know how the game is played.

  4. Radio Geordie says

    If I’ve got this right, he [Amol] released the news 24 hours before it was meant to be announced. There’s a simple enough way to stop this happening again. Don’t release the press release until you want the news out there. The daft thing is, I knew about the new station 24 hours before the leak happened because I found ‘rumours’ about it on another website (Frequency Finder).

    The thing that’s upset Bauer is that they were using Simon Mayo to announce the new station only to be trumped by a journalist who didn’t play by their rules. Go figure.

    He [Simon] has already hinted that there is more than 1 new station being set up. Now we know what one is, it would be interesting to find out what the other is, if there is another.

    1. MICHAEL BOLTON says

      I’d follow @radiogoss…….or @countryhitsuk just out of interest.

      1. Radio Geordie says

        I noticed from the Radio in the UK Twitter page that he [Radio Goss] is hinting that the other Bauer station is going to be called Country Hits Radio and even has the rather cheap looking station logo. Is that reveal meant to be under embargo as well ?

  5. MICHAEL BOLTON says

    Colin is bang on.
    PR teams and journalists have different agendas and objectives.
    Branches of the same family but with different DNA.
    You can be friendly and work together but neither is there to help the other
    PR is to drive the agenda of the organisation in a positive managed way
    Journalists break news and find things out and tell people.
    In business don’t bear grudges or have issues on events such as this – you learn and adapt – and having it broken like that may have got it more attention than might have happerned – it’s no great disaster.
    Hey they are PR people if tey can;t put a good spin on it!

    REMEMBER:
    A fox and a scorpion both need to cross a river.
    The scorpion asks the fox for a ride on its back as it cannot swim.
    The fox refuses saying “no you’ll sting me”.
    The scorpion replies that it wouldn’t, as it would cause them both to drown and die.
    The fox agrees and allows the scorpion to ride on it’s back.
    Half way across the river the scorpion stings the fox.
    As the poison takes effect on the fox and it starts to sink it asks the scorpion, “Why?”
    “Why did you sting me, now we are both going to die?”
    The scorpion replies, “I couldn’t help myself, it’s in my nature”.

  6. Dave says

    I’m gonna pitch in on this one as I’ve had one of my most frustrating 24 hours in journalism.
    I had a story – good one too that I’d been nurturing relationships and new lines for more than a year. I broke it on Today – and was making calls most weeks on it. Legal case – and I kept in with the players because cases can collapse or settle before you know it.
    It settled a week or so ago – but was subject to an NDA between the sides and the govt was announcing it, with an inconvenient (for my programme anyway) embargo.
    Breaking either of those (even though I didn’t sign the NDA) while really very tempting, would likely have exposed a source who had been threatened with legal sanctions if they leaked.
    As it stood, I got advance sight of all documents and embargo-busting access to key interviews that I know no other broadcast journo had. They were on a standing start on an involved strory that I didn’t even to brush up on. I decided that if a paper broke the embargo, I would follow but otherwise I was ahead by a distance.
    I pitched it all our national outlets yesterday. They liked the combo of a two-way and a scoop on key player interviews. Yet one by one, despite a strong plan that only disadvantaged my own outlet, they dropped a breaking story in their time, no effort required to cover and certainly a tale no listener would forget because of the extraordinary rich detail it it. How I wish I had broken those embargoes – a story that will be in all the papers tomorrow, when i offered clueless editors a stone cold exclusive on a story we could have owned.

    Bad day. Embargoes can be the right thing – and on the whole I would really only consider breaking one if someone else has and I’ll have to. Or, I get wind that I’m about to be scooped on it. Easy call then.
    Otherwise earning a brownie point or two for an easy professional courtesy that costs me nothing, isn’t anything to be this first-at-all-costs about.

    1. Colin Kelly says

      Thanks Dave, really interesting and sorry to hear of your frustrations. Sounds like some great work in any event. For me, it’s never about ‘being first’, more about whether your beholden to the Bauer Media press team or putting your responsibilities to your pen profession, and professional judgement first. It’s about who you think you answer to. And what relationships you believe are worth preserving. Accuracy, responsibility, sometimes respect.. all well ahead of ‘being first’. Good discussion though.

  7. Dave says

    I think it’s worth looking at why journalists stick to embargoes at all.

    As far as I can tell, it’s because they’re getting a story they otherwise wouldn’t have known about, and are being given the chance to line it up, get extra info and commentary on etc if they deem it worthy enough.

    The key part here is that it’s a story the journalist wouldn’t have otherwise known about. They didn’t uncover the story and so currently the unwritten rule is that they agree on timing.

    And they’re agreeing to play by this unwritten rule to ensure they aren’t on the back-foot for any and all embargoed stories in future.

    Of course, if journalists would rather not abide by this rule they don’t have to. But seeing as most journalists do, multiple times a day, it seems like it has some value.

    Granted, breaking an embargo gets them one scoop (and they’re entitled to it) but then no PR will ever give them an embargoed release again. Which means they’re behind on all future embargoed stories.

  8. SimonG says

    If embargos are broken then won’t those issuing the news simply not give the press the news ahead of time and thus not giving them time to build proper stories as they won’t want to be left behind in issuing the news?

  9. Dendrick Snugglechunk says

    I was always trained that embargoes mean nothing. Think hard before breaking one, because it will in the short term cause you some flack, but never think it’s anything other than a “it would be nice if you…” style request. It’s exactly like “off the record”. There’s no such thing. But most of the time you choose to abide by it because you’ll get a better story.

  10. delakota555 says

    The problem is that once you have shown yourself to be a snake and others have made note of this, is any competent PR department going to trust this person in the future?

    As a presenter, I think Amol Rajan is very mediocre and his persona more akin to a used car/mobile phone salesman. I much preferred Steve Hewlett on Radio 4’s Media Show. He is just as bad on the 6 o’clock news too. However much he is being paid it is too much!

  11. delakota555 says

    I forgot something…

    Radio is so dire in this country! The BBC and commercial stations all are obsessed with targetting age demographics and music genres. The only stations I listen to as are Radio 4, a bit of Classic FM and Planet Rock, the latter not so much as Bauer dropped it from the FM frequency where I live and it sounds poor on DAB and their internet streams. My favourite station is a small station in California called Radio Paradise (www.radioparadise.com) where a husband/wife team play an eclectic mix of music, uninterrupted by inane banter, travel or news. You can listen via their webplayer or they provide streamlinks (it’s on TuneIn too). There’s even an app for mobile devices which allows you to skip tracks and cache the stream so you use it without an internet connection. It becomes very boring listening to one genre of music and never exposing yourself to anything different. I don’t want to hear the same songs which a computer algorithm has decided are everybody’s favourite songs! Why not give it a try?

  12. delakota555 says

    I still never made my point…

    As much as I like Simon Mayo, do I really want to listen to three hours of classical music?

    No.

    1. Joe Smith says

      Then don’t!

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