RIP, Product Embargo Letters?

Do embargoes matter any more?

by: - Last updated on: May 18th, 2018

Does this thing even matter? I can tell you right now which b*****d is going to break it!

Those were the words of a colleague when they were asked to sign an embargo for a soon to be launched product. And no, they were not the words of a person jealous of a high-profile rival. Sure enough, the product embargo was broken by a few distinguished people. And that once again gave rise to an issue that is being increasingly debated in the Indian tech media:

Does signing embargoes for products or honoring them make any sense?

Before I get into the matter, a quick word on what an embargo or the embargo letter is. In simple language, it is a document that a media person signs when they are allowed to use a product or a service before it is launched. By signing the document, the media person promises not to write about this product or service before a specific date (generally the date of the launch). The idea of an embargo is simple – to give the media access to a product or service well before it is made available to the general public so that articles and reviews about it can appear just as it is launched, which is when curiosity about it is at its peak. So for instance, a company that is launching a phone on 21 June might give reviewers the device on 10 June, but insist that they cannot write about it until 21 June – the promise not to write about the product before a specific date is the price a media person pays for getting early access to it. It is a well-established practice going back a few decades now.

embargo

Why is breaking an embargo bad? Well, because it kills the momentum around a launch and also lets a brand’s rivals know what it is going to do. Of course, the culture of “leaks” lets most of the cat out of the bag well before a launch too, but these are often speculative in nature. A picture of a “real” product or details about it have a totally different impact. Which is why some brands even include clauses about financial repercussions if a media person breaks an embargo.

And yet, embargoes get broken. Time and time again.

The reason for this is simple: to get the news first and reap the Web traffic benefits. Even getting something online a few minutes before the competition can make a significant difference to the traffic a site gets – interestingly, most embargo violations are made by online publishers rather than print ones, who do not really stand much to gain considering most newspapers and magazines hit the stands at the same time and frequency anyway.

There is another reason why embargoes get broken, at least in India: the companies that make media persons sign them more often than not turn a blind eye to violations. Given the speed at which the Indian legal system operates, taking action against an embargo breaker would not only take months but would also alienate a section of the media (a company once even attracted criticism and calls for a boycott for “daring” to impose a financial penalty in one of its embargo clauses). If the person breaking the embargo is well-known (which often is the case), companies are even more wary of getting into a legal tangle with them. Also, at the end of the day, many brands feel the odd errant person does not really affect the overall coverage the event gets. There are some brands that have banned some very notable members of the media for violating embargo clauses, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

However, the fact that some people can break an embargo and not just get away without punishment, but also reap the benefits of an “exclusive/scoop/first ever/whatever” news item does not only undercut the value of the embargo itself but more dangerously, tempts others to break it too. “I am being punished for keeping my word, in a manner of speaking,” one of my close friends in the media complained, “even while those who cheat are flourishing. The only bloody reason I sign that bit of paper is that without doing so, I will not get the device!

Which is a sad state of affairs.

At the moment of writing, companies are drafting elaborate embargoes, which outline the times at which you can share first impressions, photographs, reviews and comparisons and the lord alone knows what else, keeping in mind a certain communication strategy. These embargoes are signed.

And then time and again, these embargoes are violated. The company’s strategy gets messed up. Those who obey the embargo lose traffic. And those who do not respect their own signatures benefit. It is almost like a system that is designed to benefit the corrupt.

The solution? Honestly, the ball is squarely in the court of the brands here. Their inaction is reducing the embargo letter to a scrap of paper that has zero credibility and authority. Yes, there will be those in the media who will always respect them, because of a sense of honour. One of my cherished memories is of a tech writer refusing to break an embargo when others had, saying:

I signed the damn thing. It is my name and my publication there. I will not break it. If someone else does it, it reflects more on them, than on me. Sure, people break the law and get away with it, that does not mean the law should be abolished or that everyone should become a law breaker.

Brave words, but it is only a matter of time before even the patience of the honourable runs out. Brands need to pay more attention to imposing embargoes and less attention to composing them.

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