Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Forgo the Forgone Embargo

Rolling Stone got scooped on its own story this week. The editors shared an advance copy of their exclusive interviews with military leadership in Afghanistan with AP, a regular courtesy to reputable news organizations. But, that embargoed article spurred news that moved faster than the magazine. After AP ran its story, Politico posted a PDF of the entire Rolling Stone article on its own site (until copyright lawyers threatened to get involved). In this rapid-fire series of events, President Obama ended up relieving Gen. Stanley McChrystal of duty barely two days later. The general’s critical remarks leaked out of the Rolling Stone story and splashed up online, demanding a top level Administration response before the magazine even hit newsstands.

Advance copies of press releases, news announcements and, in this most recent case, published articles are often distributed with the request that the information not be published until a certain date, also known as an “embargo.” Arguably, this practice gives reporters a chance to do their own journalism and dig a little deeper into current events. It offers them a bit of lead time to confirm their facts and offer more than what the public affairs office might provide on a topic. At least that’s one perspective on embargoes.

Embargoes have long been controversial. While public affairs professionals claim they are in the journalist’s interest, many journalists see embargoes as unwelcome interference. TechCrunch has offered all too accurate parodies of how this tension between PR and news operations evolved. Vincent Kiernan even wrote a book on the subject, describing how embargoes impede scientific knowledge by fostering a herd mentality that puts science writers at the mercy of a few academic journals.

It’s not the first time a wire service has jumped the gun for an exclusive story. Nor will it be the last – shortly after Dow Jones acquired the Wall Street Journal, the WSJ journalists were informed they would be judged on breaking news and stopped accepting news under embargoes. This latest news event at the Rolling Stone should send a clear message to communications professionals – the rules of engagement have changed. The vicious competition of the 24/7 news cycle has overwhelmed the traditional conventions of journalistic etiquette.

- Potomac Communications Group

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