This is the final installment of my three-part series on news conferences. If a story is really ‘hot’, the pressure to pre-release it to select outlets in whole or in part, can be intense. Here are a few strategic issues to consider in terms which reporters do, or don’t, get special advance access to the story:
An embargo simply means that you are asking reporters and editors to hold off airing the story until the time you specify – usually it’s the time your news conference begins. If you write “embargoed until 10:00 AM, April 30, 2010″ at the very top of your news release in big bold letters, for example, then you are asking reporters to honour the embargo, and not air or print the story before that time. If your news release is distributed on the newswires or through your email broadcast system at exactly the time of the news conference, you don’t really need to embargo the story. But if you’re sending out the release a few hours beforehand, then it is important that you embargo the story for the time of the news conference – otherwise, the story might be broadcast or printed in advance, and there will be less incentive for other outlets to attend; the story will be that much less “new”.
Many groups consider offering a strategic leak or “advance” to one reporter (usually a newspaper reporter) the day before. The key consideration here is whether you are asking the reporter to honour the embargo. This is what we are calling an “embargoed advance”. There are pros and cons to this approach.
- Benefits: allowing a trusted reporter to have earlier access to the story allows them to build a richer piece, including more elements, and to develop a deeper understanding of the issue. The story may be larger or longer, and it may have more images. A second advantage is that you can potentially develop a better relationship with that reporter, becoming an even more valuable “source” for future stories.
- Risks: The more time a reporter has with your perspective, the more time they may have with the perspectives of opponents, if any. It is the reporter’s job to seek other perspectives on an issue. By giving them more time to do this, your reporter may then contact the “other side” for comment. Not only does this mean that the very first story on the issue is more likely to portray different arguments (rather than just yours), but your opponents (if you have any) may be “tipped off” about the story. A second risk is that the reporter, or even their editor, may not honour the embargo. This is discussed more below.
Leaks or Advances
If you are “leaking” or “advancing” the story, but not requesting that the reporter honour the embargo, the story may appear on the morning of (or even day before) your news conference. Often radio stations or TV outlets will ask to release the story that morning, before the news conference. And if your story is newsworthy, there is almost always pressure from news outlets to allow them to cover and release the story before the news conference.
This is what it means: If your story is “embargoed”, but you then allow a reporter to release the story before the news conference, you yourself are breaking the embargo. There are potential benefits and significant risks to this approach. The advantage: your early-release story may whip up even more excitement among the media and generate more news coverage than it otherwise would. Or, if the news conference itself doesn’t draw that much attention, you may be lucky, and end up with at least a single (hopefully large and favourable) story in the outlet to which you advanced the story.
But reporters don’t always deliver. Sometimes their editors kill the story before it is printed or aired. Other times they themselves determined that it just isn’t that newsworthy, compared to other news priorities that day or week. Still other times, the story may appear – but it might be small, buried in the back pages, or unfavourable, in terms of how the issue is framed or your group is portrayed.
Deciding on what to do can be nerve-wracking. It’s rather like a game of “chicken”. Usually, groups doing news conferences are nervous – if a reporter seems genuinely interested in a “scoop”, it is extremely tempting to consider offering them one, in hopes that they will indeed be able to deliver a major story.
But there is a tremendous risk to both you and your organization. In breaking your own embargo, you may well damage your credibility of both as a communicator and source. You may anger reporters who did not have the benefit of the leak or advance. If they are sufficiently disgruntled, they may choose to not honour your embargos in the future, or they may ignore your story leads altogether. I remember being yelled at for 5 minutes by a CBC reporter when one of my clients – against my advice – decided to release their story to a friendly reporter at another outlet before the news conference. It was not pleasant – and the relationship was damaged. Social justice groups are sometimes accused by reporters of being unprofessional and unreliable – often because they tend to break embargoes — so your organization may already be behind in terms of credibility at the outset.
If you do decide to take the risk and offer an advance to a trusted reporter or editor, then don’t give away every element of the story (unlike an exclusive – see below). Decide exactly how much information you are willing to part with in advance, and stick to that. Keep the interview very short. Make it clear to the reporter that you are withholding some information. What you are really doing is trying to get the reporter to raise interest in your story, not lower it by making subsequent stories by other reporters “old news.” For example, if you’re releasing a report, don’t give them the full report, but just key findings — just enough for them to write a 300-word story or do a 30-second news item and make sure there’s something left for them to report the next day. Also, make sure the reporter knows that you are giving them an advance.
And next time, if you again decide to offer an advance, consider offering it to a different news outlet. Spread the goodwill around if you can – keep building those relationships!
Finally, a word on “exclusives”. Giving a reporter an exclusive means you are giving her the whole story, including all the elements you have at your disposal. Generally, if you are offering a key reporter an exclusive, it does not make sense to then hold a press conference. It will almost always guarantee that other outlets will be reluctant to show up at a news conference to hear the same story –and who can blame them? An exclusive should be regarded as a stand-alone media tactic, separate from a news conference. As such, it can be very effective. For example, if your target audience is federal policy makers, an exclusive in a national daily can be an invaluable way of delivering your message.