How Companies Collude With Reporters To Control When Stories Get Published: Embargoed Press Releases

Have you ever noticed how a new product comes out and a well-developed article with multiple quotes and sources appears in all the major papers? Are reporters just so Olympian in their competitiveness, performing at levels differing only by a few milliseconds? If only. Often, this shows an “embargoed” story, a technique corporations use to control the media and public perception. Here’s how it works.


A publicist releases information to journalists with the stipulation that it can’t be reported until a certain time and date. This allows the company to coordinate news coverage with their public announcement, new ads, and other marketing initiatives. For their part, the embargo allows journalists the time needed to publish a “breaking” story that’s well-developed, fact-checked, has multiple quotes, and comes in on deadline.

Sometimes the gentleman’s agreement is arranged in advance between the publicist and the journalist, or a working arrangement with the news organization at large. Sometimes, publicists simply send out releases already declared embargoed (such has been the case with every embargoed release we’ve ever received).

If an embargo is broken, the company might blacklist the reporter or news organization from future juicy tidbits, and the reporter’s ethics will be called into question.

Hardly headline news, but we thought you would be interested in hearing about this way in which corporations try to control the journalism process. — BEN POPKEN

(Photo: Getty)

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  1. Buran says:

    I’m surprised this is apparently not widely known.

    I don’t trust “news” anymore in part due to things like this.

  2. harumph says:

    the corporate feudal state at its best.

  3. zentec says:

    Oh, it gets better than that.

    Companies make complete news stories promoting their products that are made to be repackaged into local newscasts. They come complete with voice over scripts, lead-in scripts, “donuts” and if requested, live talent to toss too and from the studio. It looks like a real news story when it’s nothing better than a press release and at worst, unpaid advertising.

    During the weekday, Galaxy-26 c-band satellite is full of these fake news stories. My favorite was when Eveready had the debut of their little cellphone battery booster/charger. You’d think Eveready had figured out a process to turn coffee into gasoline with the slick packaging and attractive blond talking heads. It was nothing more than a way to get free advertising by giving TV news departments an easy “story” to fill time. It’s work they didn’t have to do, so why do they care?

  4. Kazari says:

    Corporate flacks are not the only ones who do this — it’s common practice for major scientific and medical announcements, as well. It’s been on the wane in the Internet age because it’s much harder to control the message than it once was. Personally, I would rather have a well-sourced article that is factual than breaking news that may or may not get the details right.

  5. itsgene says:

    It’s bad enough that corporations do this, but in the last few years the revelation that the government has been secretly doing it is even worse.

  6. eldergias says:

    BBC is the way to go. I still trust Reuters, CNN, and MSN Money for financial news because they would be burned at the stake for falsifying financial information, but for anything consumer else, such as political information, go to the BBC.

  7. ikemcfadden says:

    As someone who works at one of the larger PR firms in the country, I can attest that the above is definitely a good overview of the process.

    The interplay between PR and news organizations is very hand-in-glove. It’s not, however, just about controling journalism…it’s about controlling perception of the average person. PR is really a form of propaganda – controlling the message. But whether you agree with the process or not…it IS the process, and has been for about 300 years or so. Aside from major international events and stories reporters personally witness firsthand, journalists usually find out about “news” because someone somewhere tells them about it.

    Almost always, these “sources” are people with one agenda or another. One doesn’t blast out press releases to the media out of the goodness of one’s heart…you do it because you have something to be gained by a subject being perceived one way instead of another. It gets back to managing perception.

    In many ways, it’s simply human nature. It’s the same reason you might shower and dress up for a first date; you want to be perceived as clean and sharp. You want to control someone’s impression of you.

    And, it’s not just corporations that attempt to use PR for control; governments, politicians, and special interest groups from liberal to conservative have highly active PR branches, and have had them since before the printing press was invented.

  8. swalve says:

    When’s the last time you heard of a reporter saying anything about confirming sources, either? Used to be that when an “unnamed government official” said something, you couldn’t print it until you got confirmation from other sources…

  9. JRuiz47 says:

    Journos, the easy way to not have your ethics called into question by these companies: DON’T DO IT!

    Argh! Your only tie should be to your readers.

    I might be a young journalist, but I was raised the old-school way and I enjoy the chase of a story. Hell, that’s part of the rush right there.

  10. ikemcfadden says:

    Unless you can report every single aspect of a story, you’re gonna have bias creep in. Simply selecting what you deem relevant and what you deem irrelevant to the “story” is a subjective process. Every news organization, and every reporter, has their own bias, including the BBC.

    It’s just human nature.

    The key isn’t knowing which channels are biased and which aren’t; the key is understanding that they are all biased in some direction. Once you know that, you can apply the appropriate mental filter to the appropriate channel, and make your own decision.

    Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “A, B and C are biased, but I know X, Y, and Z are telling it the way it really is.”

  11. othium says:

    Sony was upset when a gaming blog released an article without “playing by the rules” and tried to blacklist them.

    I didn’t work out well for Sony.

    http://kotaku.com/gaming/top/sony-blackballs-kotaku-240860

  12. There are good things about the process that are easy to gloss over.

    For instance, if you were a company working on the “Next Big Thing” it’s extremely frustrating to have misinformation be leaked before a public release date. It’s all about controlling the fanfare and the buzz at release.

    Here is an example: Sony recently unveiled their ultra-thin TFT display that can be bent and still display video. If an ill-informed journalist were to see the video and reported on it as “Sony working on portable holographic technology” then there would be a cause for concern. An embargoed press release helps to curb that sort of thing.

  13. eldergias says:

    @ikemcfadden: I talk about trusting the BBC more than other sources for straight forward news because I live in the USA and BBC is a British news group. The news organizations that will have the least biased will be those most removed from the location of impact of the story. MSN is never gonna run a story that will expose the seedy underbelly of Microsoft because MSN is Microsoft. The news outlets in the USA all have their agenda and bias. News outlets in other countries will still have bias, but far less due to their not being actually directly impacted by the news they report.

    As for Reuters, CNN, and MSN Money on financial matters, there have been falsified stories in the past and we have seen what has happened to the people behind them. It is much akin to a thief being caught in Bangladesh and having his hand cut off for stealing. People will cry and moan when a normal media outlet makes a mistake or reports information incorrectly. When a financial media outlet falsifies stories people loose their jobs, money, credibility, and go to jail for a long long time. Who are the people who really run this country? The men with money. If the politicians are in people’s pockets, those people have to have deep pockets. The people with those deep pockets are the ones at the top of the financial industry. Giving people like that wrong information will ruin you.

  14. eldergias says:

    “but far less due to their not being actually directly impacted by the news they report.”

    I meant to add, “when they are reporting about news in the United States.”

  15. eldergias says:

    @othium: Kotaku is owened by Gawker Media, which also owns The Consumerist. So it is a sister site.

  16. timmus says:

    Thanks for reminding me why I get much of my news from alternative sources, as well as good blogs where false information gets winnowed out. I worked in a TV news department back in the mid-1990s, and even then in my innocence I saw how the “Health” segments were being aired as pure, canned PR releases with zero interest on the part of the newsroom.

  17. This isn’t something to get particularly upset about. While the process can be exploited, in most cases it’s absolutely necessary and often the most ethical thing to do, because the article will be about a future product or publication.

    A simple example is a publication like the Journal of the American Medical Association–they send a press release to medical beat writers saying JAMA will be publishing an article on a new cancer treatment but to embargo that information until the article actually published. If the information is not embargoed, you have the enormous ethical problem of cancer patients reading about this new treatment without their doctors’ having access to the research.

  18. FLConsumer says:

    This stuff’s been going on for ages, even back in the days of newspaper-only news. Even with some of the legal cases & larger criminal investigations I’ve been involved with, one of the first things we do is analyze the reporters and see which ones are more business-savvy than others. Then we establish contact with them, lay out our ground rules. When you’re dealing with criminal investigations, you often need to keep certain info out of the public eye initially, especially when you’re still trying to track down witnesses, perps, etc. Of course, it helps if you make it worthwhile for the reporters. If you give them “inside info” that’s “not to be published”, they actually appreciate it. Good reporters actually understand this is part of the process and is beneficial to both sides. I’ve even had reporters send me stories before they’ve run to make sure they’ve gotten the facts correctly on some of the more complex cases.

    I’m sure this happens with any/every news organization. This probably even happened before the publication of newspapers.

  19. ikemcfadden says:

    @eldergias…I would agree that, in principle, those far removed from an event might seem to effect less bias. But in practice, that’s rarely the case. Those far from the scene also tend to lack perspective and resources.

    Pravda Online, for example, reported immediately after Hurricane Katrina that some 400,000 Americans had been killed. The real number appears to be about 1,800.

    You can’t get much further from New Orleans than Russia…and yet bias crept in.

    As it was far too soon for any official stats, someone there made the choice to print one unconfirmed number instead of some other unconfirmed number. That choice has, at it’s root, bias.

    To be clear, I don’t necessarily think “bias” is a synonymn for “ill intent” or “a desire to mislead”. It’s simply the process of self-selecting the data you deem reliable or relevant.

    Rather, bias (as I’m defining it) seems to just be a function of human nature combined with an individual’s own psychology…something no one, no matter how far removed from the scene, is immune to.

    If one has trouble detecting the bias of a given news source (be it Fox News, BBC, or Al Jazeera), it’s usually because their operating bias closely matches your own…and the bias is therefore very, very hard to detect.

  20. kentuckienne says:

    Err, I’m not seeing the great ethical dilemma here. As someone said above, medical and scientific journals do this all the time — they send out embargoed press releases before their issues go to press. It reflects a simple fact about journalism — something released or announced yesterday is old news. An embargo gives journalists a chance to review the article, and to find experts on both sides of an issue to read it and provide their opinion. You can’t call someone the day a study is published and ask them to comment — unless they were involved with the research, they won’t have seen it. And if they were involved with the published research, they’re not precisely unbiased, are they?

  21. magin says:

    I don’t get why people think this is shady. A company gives a reporter a few days to write a story, and we all worry that they’re “colluding” to “control the journalism process”?

    What are the substantive and ethical differences between:

    1) Sending out an embargoed press release on Monday, saying that the information can go public Wednesday.

    and

    2) Putting out that press release and information on Wednesday.

    Both situations involve a company choosing the timing of its news. Why are we worked up about this?

    Even for something uber-corporate, like financial statements or product launches, I have difficulty seeing the ethical dilemma.

  22. Triteon says:

    I’m shocked, shocked, to learn that this practice goes on. Actually, I’m shocked anyone would be surprised by it.

    You want to bring up news media– and some even took the myopic step of politicizing it above– look at the timing of articles in almost any magazine. How about North American travel magazines running articles for southern hemisphere (i.e. their summer) travel “hot spots”? The accompanying ads aren’t (generally) for North Face.

    So yes–I defend the practice. But some things even cross my line…
    http://publications.mediapost.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Art

  23. eldergias says:

    @ikemcfadden: Ah, see, the difference in our opinions stems from our different definitions of “bias”. If an Anchorman is handed two statements about the figures of dead at some location where one figure is 1,000 and the other figure is 10,000 and the anchorman just flips a coin to decide which one he uses because he only has time to give one set of figures, I would not call it bias, I would call it unconfirmed information. However, I would call it bias if he chose the 10,000 because it came from a buddy of his.

    My understanding of bias is that information has to be deliberately omitted, selected, or worded in a way to mislead people from the exact truth as the source knows it OR is chosen from a source based on connections (emotional, fiscal, ect.) other than prior proved reliability, to be biased.

    I agree that making a news outlet completely removed means accidentally lower accuracy information, but since news outlets at the scene are more prone to purposeful lower accuracy information, the happy medium is a news organization that is not directly involved with any party that is pertinent to the stories you care to read but is close enough to be able to get their hands on legitimate information. From what I have seen, the BBC would be it for Americans wanting accurate information on events within the USA (odd, I know, but if someone else knows of a better source please let me know). Though that leaves me wondering where the Brits go for their news…

  24. typetive says:

    I’m with magin, why is this a big deal. I get embargoed press releases and I’ve written them before. These aren’t life or death issue, it’s about new products, corporate announcements or TV shows.

    If the reporters go with the stories early the supporting website pages might not be up or the stores might not have their inventory yet, tickets might not be on sale. Calendar sections use these for event listings all the time. Is it any less news what the new season for blah blah theatre company is three days later?

  25. GitEmSteveDave says:

    @zentec: Coffe’s more expensive than gas.

  26. Gari N. Corp says:

    I see a huge difference between journalists making a deal on the timing of news, and making some kind of accommodation on coverage, which is what the kotaku spat came down to. I had to bite my tongue a but reading this, because the alternative is for news organisations to blow huge amounts of time and money chasing down product rumours. Most of which ends up as stories like “my source at apple says that the iPhone is coming tomorrow”, which are then attracted. I don’t mean to be snotty about consumer journalism, but providing the embargo doesn’t come with any other strings i really don’t see a problem. Happens with politicians speeches the whole time.

  27. superbeetle says:

    As the editor of a product review section at a men’s magazine, I have to say that embargoes aren’t as big a moral conundrum as they’re made out to be here. In fact, they’re pretty damned handy in my line of work.

    See, the magazine industry works off lead times – I’m working on our September issue now, and it’s not even June yet. In order to make sure I’m not writing about 4-month-old products in September’s issue, companies kindly give me a heads start via an embargoed press release. I could run the information, or I could not – no collusion or control involved. If it’s worth running in the mag, I can usually get a review unit, as early production units are dubbed, so that I even have some hands-on time with the product.

    In the face of instantaneously published blogs, a press embargo’s the only way I can compete. You can say that’s one more nail in the dead-tree media coffin, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue. But figured I’d weigh in from my position.

  28. HannahBethD says:

    I work at a newspaper so I have kind of an insider’s view on that one.

    Yeah, we get news releases by the dozens everyday from everyone from politicians to cookware companies to nonprofit organizations.

    Any newspaper worth its salt looks at said release, goes ‘huh, look at that,’ and into the recycle bin it goes. If it’s something particularly interesting (i.e. some new-fangled product we think our readers might be interested in, or some cryptic political speak) we’ll have a reporter (i.e. from features or the political beat) take a look and see what’s going on.

  29. lhm says:

    I’m a journalist, and know a bit why this goes on. If you’re staff, you’re expected to put out a certain number of articles a year. The real investigative stuff costs–not just travel and research time, but in the legal dept.–real investigative reporting has to be vetted by lawyers because the media is fearful of getting sued.

    If you’re working with a company on a piece about their product, there’s less chance of this, and the stories come ready-made.

    Now, consider the plight of freelancers–who make $250 – $400 for newspaper stories, and 75 cents to a dollar a word for national magazines. They have to put out 1-3 articles a week to make a middle-class wage. These ‘prepackaged’ stories look good to them because they’re stories they can sell with not a lot of work. Freelancers have the added burden of both sides of social security, and if they’re soley freelancers, they have to pay quarterly taxes–which is as lot of book-keeping, meaning time spent not making money.

    A good example of prepackaged journalism is book reviewing (I’m a book reviewer). We receive the galley copies and press releases months in advance, do out little author interviews, and then the book review comes out on the publication date. No one seems to mind this.

    Most journalists want to save the world. At least, that’s how they start out. Then the realities of the business settle in. Most compromise with a mix of fluff stories, prepackaged deals, and the real McCoy.

    The best defense of prepackaged journalism is that, if it didn’t exist, journalists wouldn’t wouldn’t have the time and space needed to focus on real investigation–especially the way media has been cutting staff lately. Fewer reporters means more work for those left.

    For prepackaged journalism to stop happening so much, four things would have to happen:

    1)Media companies need to hire more reporters.

    2)Magazines and newspapers need to pay freelancers a decent wage–one that rises with inflation.

    3)Laws need to change so that big businesses will think twice about suing responsible media.

    4)The tax code needs to become more friendly towards freelancers.

    You get what you pay for. If you don’t like prepackaged journalism, ask yourself, ‘How much do I pay for the journalism I receive?’

  30. When I worked at a newspaper we ignored 99% of these releases to begin with, but we would get them from certain organizations that we regularly covered. When we felt it was embargoed for a good reason or at least a reasonable reason (such as the “new cancer treatment” or maybe a big donation being made by a major philanthropist and there’s no particular news value to blowing their big fun surprise press conference by breaking the embargo) we’d go ahead and write the story and hold for the embargo.

    When it was for a crap reason — for us, often movie studios not wanting you to report their movie sucked balls before opening weekend — we just ignored them. Or didn’t run a story about it at all. If you’re that desperate to control your press, sorry, you can’t have any from us!

    The other things that are embargoed in the newspaper business are syndicated items such as comics and crosswords. You receive your Dilberts a week at a time, but they are STRICTLY embargoed until the official date of publication. However, you agree to that contractually when you begin purchasing them from the syndicate; it’s not unilaterally imposed on you by the syndicate.

  31. MattyMatt says:

    We’ve encountered this from time to time at SFist.com, a San Francisco news/events blog that I co-edit. In the past, my policy has been to honor the embargo, but to immediately reveal to readers that I am doing so, so they can make the decision about whether or not they wish to read a site that embargoes some stories.

    Similarly, I honor requests to go “off the record.” Sometimes, a source will lose their job or face danger if they are identified or quoted. There will always be information that simply can’t be made public; hopefully, reporters will be skillful and ethical in their judgment thereof.

  32. balagon says:

    Like others, I don’t see that this is a problem.

    From the other side: many, many years ago I was working on a science program that produced results that made headline news around the world. It was SOP for our news releases to be released under embargo. That allowed the weekly magazines (and sometimes the monthlies) to be able to publish the story within the same general timeframe as the daily papers. The newspaper and tv reporters didn’t care about the embargo one way or another, but for the weekies it was a lifesaver.

    So you can imagine how the project and our press officer felt when a reporter for a science weekly broke the embargo and published a week early, “scooping” everyone. Said reporter was pretty much at the back of the line for any journalistic favors from the project.

    Embargoes can exist for really good reasons. Not everything is some kind of plot.

  33. MasonMacabre says:

    Part of my job is dealing with and reading press releases. I get ahold of at least 2-3 embargoed press releases every day. I always thought it was strange for newspapers and media outlets to “hold onto” information, but I also wonder who else has these press releases and how much they are shown to people outside the company who in turn use them picks stocks. I could make a lot of money from the information I know, but I could also be arrested and fired from my job.

  34. swalve says:

    I think I have more problem with people who think product announcements are newsworthy at all, regardless of embargo.