Embargo that NDA!!

While talking to a source/friend of mine, he was lamenting (okay, pissed for 30 seconds) about embargoes. His wonderful escapade happened yesterday, when he was pitched by a public relations firm a pretty interesting story - but two other news sources were pitched the same story.

The PR firm had asked for verbal embargoes, but my friend's company does not agree to embargoes, and ergo not honour them. Not a pretty hard concept to grasp, is it? But, the PR firm was livid, and was giving him tons of grief today for breaking the story. I'm sorry, but the agency is being stupid for thinking a verbal embargo was going to stop a young reporter from running with a good story.

I have always thought that verbal embargoes are as good as the paper they are written on. When I was in-house, we were pitching a partnership deal to the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press. I had counseled against embargoes, but was gung ho for having a written non-disclosure, but the other company did not believe that their reporter would screw them over. The Journal reporter was my beat reporter, whom I trusted but still knew was a reporter. The AP reporter I had never worked with, and knew piddly about him. Of course, within 10 minutes of the conversation and interview, the AP reporter ran off and broke his verbal embargo and posted the story on the AP wire at 5.00 PM (he was supposed to wait until 8.00 PM, so the Journal reporter could post it).

Because of the relationship I had with the reporter, we were still able to get a print story, as well as a nice sized Web story. But, the fact was that the verbal embargo had been broken, and we had no real recourse beyond bitching and moaning.

When I was at the large agency, we worked with reporters at long-lead magazines on non-disclosure agreements (NDA) all the time. We had the NDAs put together by the corporate legal, and the reporters had no trouble signing them, understanding that it was either honour the NDA or never see product early. It was a pretty cut and dry arrangement - reporters understood that the company needed to keep the product under press wraps, but wanted to get press when the product hit the shelves, and not three months later. And the company understood that there might be some leakage, but that in a cost/benefit analysis, the benefits outweighed the costs.

So, on that point, would I use either embargoes or NDAs at POP! Public Relations? Of course, you have to, especially if the client wants them to be used. Would I go with verbal embargoes? No, unless the reporter and the publication refuses to sign a non-disclosure, which I have run into. But, with those reporters, it is usually someone the firm has a long-standing relationship with, and you know he's not going to stab the company and the PR firm in the back. Especially if he/she wants news before it breaks again ...

An addendum: a friend pointed out that NDAs are the same thing we preach to our clients: There is NO such thing as off the record!! We teach our clients during media training there is no such thing as off the record, and why would a verbal embargo be any different? A reporter is only doing his job - selling the paper by beating his competitors to the punch. Wouldn't you beat your competitor to the punch if you had the opportunity?

My response was that, yah, but NDAs are a little bit more binding - people are scared when they sign stuff. True, but sad.