Embargoes, how do they work? When should you use these as opposed to an exclusive?

By Rudi Davis Published: 12 August, 2015 Last updated: February 18th, 2022 at 11:50 am

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Embargoes are to exclusives as megaphones are to mobile phones – they let us broadcast a message to as many people as possible, all at the same time.

Embargoes work on an honor system. We give our news to a set of journalists in advance and tell them, “You can only publish this story at a certain time, on a certain date – and not before.” Then we have to rely on the journalists to honor that agreement. Breaking an embargo to be the first out the gate might seem tempting, but it is considered bad etiquette. Journalists rarely want to miss out on future big stories because they’ve reneged on an agreement.

In contrast, when we offer an exclusive to a journalist, we give our word that we will not pass the story on to any other publication or reporter. This is sometimes backed up by a contractual obligation between the source and the publication.

Don’t publications prefer exclusives?

Well, yes. It’s something of an understatement to say that publications prefer exclusives. An exclusive is more attractive because the journalist can rest assured that they will be the first with the story, and no other publication will be releasing the news at the same time. This is important for their own career, as well as for the publication, because exclusives mean more page views and prestige.

If you offer a reporter an exclusive, you’re raising the chances that they will take the time to do deeper research, look for interviews and and write a more in-depth piece. On the other hand, if they know that other publications are covering the news, there is less incentive for them to do such a thorough job.

On the other hand, when a story is embargoed, there will be a lot more competition. There’s always the risk that the agreement will be broken by an unscrupulous reporter or even a publication like TechCrunch, which has a dramatic death-to-embargoes policy. A broken embargo would render all a journalist’s hard work and research pointless, because no one wants to be publishing yesterday’s news: “Your new product? Oh that’s just so last Wednesday.”

On top of this, embargoes bring additional pressure and new deadlines to journalists who are already struggling to juggle 10 different stories a day. As a result, some writers outright refuse to cover embargo stories at all.

So why would we ever choose an embargo over an exclusive?

Embargoes are used by companies of all sizes, but for startups in particular, they increase the number of journalists that can be contacted at the same time, which gives a much higher chance that their story will be covered. And when a story is put out by several news outlets at once, it has a lot of impact and can appear even more newsworthy.

Another benefit is that embargoes can benefit you when time is of the essence. If you offer an exclusive, you can only really do so to one journalist at a time; otherwise, you might find yourself in the untenable position of having to withdraw your offer. With embargoes we have no such limitation, and we can contact many publications at once.

Finally, sometimes a story is just so big that to offer it as an exclusive would be to waste a company’s opportunity for broader coverage.

With pros and cons for both exclusives and embargoes, it’s ultimately up to you to decide on the best approach for your company – just make sure that your story hasn’t been covered before!