Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Does embargoed material really boost your chance of media coverage?

One of this blog's most-read posts last year shared 10 big myths about embargoes, and myth number one was "Reporters won't cover your story if you don't embargo it." Reporters wanted me to be sure to put that in the post, but that may not be enough to convince you. So I'm grateful that Reuters Health Executive Editor Ivan Oransky took the time to compile some data on the proportion of embargoed studies covered by his health news service.

The occasion was this post on his Embargo Watch blog about a new journal that chose a no-embargoes policy for releasing its studies, itself a good case study if you are thinking about going embargo-free. But what caught my eye was this paragraph pulling together 2012 data from actual coverage through the end of October: 
[S]ince I run a little health news service at Reuters that reaches millions of people, I can quantify just how much embargoes drive our coverage. By the end of October, we will have covered 122 studies from journals for our consumer service. Of those, 45 were embargoed — but we didn’t hit the embargo on 12 of them, because we had better things to do, like cover more interesting studies that weren’t embargoed. And sometimes when we did cover such studies, it was knowing they weren’t terribly compelling, but we wanted to get better reporting out there than I suspected some of our competitors will do. (I like to think of that as using the power of bigfooting for good.)  
One limitation of my “study” is obvious: I’m the one making the decisions. But I know we’re not alone in seeking out studies that were neither press-released nor embargoed, because I see big news outlets covering those kinds of papers every day.
Let's recap: Of the journal studies that got coverage from Reuters Health in the first 10 months of 2012, fewer than half were based on embargoed press releases. And they let embargoes dictate when they'd cover stories just 27 percent of the time.

I hope that's enough data to spark a discussion as you consider your own media relations policies. Embargoes and their management are often cited as "time-savers for everybody," but in fact, they take an enormous amount of effort for communicators to manage. Are all those hours being spent for naught? The only way for you to find out is to check in with the reporters who cover you on a regular basis, and keep track of their coverage. Don't just ask whether they prefer embargoes. Instead, ask what proportion of their coverage comes from embargoed material, and whether the embargo actually mattered in the coverage. You might be surprised. Need help considering or reconsidering an embargo policy? Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

UPDATE: Want to share this as a tutorial in your office? Here's the post in SlideShare form:

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Karl Leif Bates said...

Hey there,
After seeing a few scolding "every PIO should read this" messages out there, I feel the need to present one PIO's perspective and put a bit more focus on where the embargoes come from and what they accomplish. I can't speak for all the big-agency folks flacking for the drug companies, but from a university perspective, I don't feel we've been using embargoes because we think they will artificially boost coverage. The vast majority of embargoes we handle are imposed on us by the journals. We're merely the enforcers. Yes, it does take some time and energy, but care and feeding of reporters is our job and we kind of like to see things done right the first time. Now more than ever, if the first couple of stories to go live contain rushed misunderstandings, everything that follows is a mess in multiple languages at the speed of light.

I'm absolutely fine with the finding that only a quarter of stories come on embargoed releases. That's great. It used to be that a story was spoiled goods two days after the embargo lifted, but counterintuitively it seems, now that the "news cycle" is pretty much all the time, we're finding some stories have much longer shelf-life and we get call-backs months after we've put something out.

But those are hardly arguments for abolishing embargoes. They still serve a purpose. I think an embargo gives reporters time to do a better job. They can get in touch with our faculty -- who are busy with other things or off campus entirely when the release drops -- and it gives them a bit of time to read the paper carefully, talk to other sources and get their minds around the story. They might even (gasp) be able to call back to check facts or ask about a quote. If it takes the scientists two years to write the damn thing up, three more days to get it right doesn't seem unreasonable.

Again, I'm not speaking for the journals who by and large create the embargoes; just the university PIOs who handle them with trust. Let's be clear who does what and be careful about global scolds.

eloquentwoman said...

Karl, thanks for broadening the scope well beyond the intent of this focused post, and I believe you're responding to reporters' reactions to the post, mostly on Twitter.

My intent is to share the data and prompt the question in the minds of folks who assume the embargo has magic qualities, nothing more. There are good and bad reasons for using embargoes, we can agree. Using them in a blanket way, or without thinking through a strategy, would mean, er, getting caught--wouldn't it?

eloquentwoman said...

I'll add one more thing: I have some clients who control embargoes who believe they'll lose coverage if they abolish them, and others who look askance at embargo-less journals, because they may not generate as much coverage for research. In both those cases, I think the data's useful, too.