Embargos, yes; exclusives, no

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This is the next entry in our “Best of” series, in which we venture deep into the vault to replay blog opinion and insight that has withstood the test of time. Today’s post hails from January 2008. We welcome your feedback.

By Francis Moran

My colleague Danny Sullivan made the strong case earlier this week in favour of negotiating embargos with trusted journalists that gives them advance access to your announcement and executives so they can do a better job with the story. In return, they promise not to publish or broadcast anything until an agreed upon time and date, usually the point at which you release the news to the rest of the world. The benefit to the company making the announcement is that the journalist has more time and flexibility to deal with the story and, guess what, so does the company. It’s a tidy win-win situation, and something we do whenever practical.

Something Danny didn’t get into, though, is the frequent situation where clients confuse embargos and exclusives, an understandable mixup given that both usually entail giving select journalists advance access to the story. But whereas embargos still treat all media outlets equally in terms of when they can run with the story, an exclusive entails favouring one, or a small handful of, outlets, giving them advance and exclusive access to the story and permission to run with it prior your making a more general announcement.

Journalists love exclusives. Some clients swear by them. We point blank refuse to do them, and here’s why.

In my 30 grizzled years as a reporter, editor and communications practitioner, I have yet to see a single case where, outside the confused and muddy world of political reporting, an exclusive has ever been in the client’s favour. As a reporter, I might have enthusiastically embraced the proffered exclusive, assuring my source that giving me advance access would secure better treatment for the story. The reality was and is that the lineup in any publication generally is beyond the reporter’s influence, often beyond even the editor’s influence. It is, rather, determined almost entirely by what else needs to get into that issue, and space and placement are rigorously assigned according to news value.

Okay, that’s a little black and white, but, in the main, it applies.

As a tech PR practitioner interested in the long-term opportunity to tell my clients’ stories through the media outlets that genuinely influence their markets, I traffic in exclusives at my peril and at the peril of my clients. The outlets I favour with the exclusive simply are not going to give me significantly better treatment while those that I shut out are going to nurse a grievance against me and my client as only the competition-fuelled egos that populate an average newsroom are capable of nursing. It ain’t pretty.

Let me give you an example.

In the more-than-nine-year history of inmedia there has been only a single client ever that took its business away from us and gave it to another agency, and it was entirely over our refusal to acquiesce to the marketing vice president’s insistence that we play favourites with a piece of news by giving an exclusive to certain media outlets. It was in the hothouse environment just prior the telecom meltdown in the U.S. and a fiercely competitive set of trade and business media was scavenging for any and every scrap of news emanating from the rash of optical systems startups that, like our client, were working on the brave new frontier of optical communications. The announcement was minor, and we simply saw no value in pissing off most of our valued contacts in favour of getting maybe an extra column inch or two of coverage in two or three of them. In fact, we saw it as running sharply counter to our client’s long-term interests, and told him so.

He disagreed, fired us and brought in a replacement agency that carried out his wishes. The wholly predictable result was that the news received the scant line or two it deserved in the publications that were favoured with the exclusive, and I spent the morning fielding angry calls from trusted editors and reporters all across North America and Europe who were understandably peeved at having been shut out.

Bottom line: Exclusives are a betrayal of the mutual trust that needs to be nurtured between PR practitioners and their media targets, they sour relationships that take a long time to cultivate and may never be repaired, and they contribute little or no added value. Don’t fall prey to their seductive but empty charm.

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