Embargo Agreements Only Work When Cat Stays In Bag

Today's lineup highlights the futility of most news embargoes. I can count perhaps 10 items that leaked before the official US announcements. I can't tell you what they are—ironically, I'd be breaking now meaningless non-disclosure agreements. And while I'd like to say that all these came from master sleuths or connected Deep Throats, most leaks are ridiculously mundane, springing from a missed memo, sloppy file handling or an overly excited vendor. All of this leads me to believe that companies are not using news embargoes correctly, and should really rethink them.

A friend of mine at one electronics manufacturer says he has trouble because his counterparts in Asia always announce products without letting him know, so the Asian editions get blown all over the web, stealing his thunder. One major cellphone maker is constantly vexed by a European carrier that likes to blab about phones that are supposed to be secret. On a regular basis, Amazon.com posts products that ought to still be under wraps.

Recently, we had a situation where PR agency people handed us ready-to-print information and images, which they then discovered had been under embargo from their client. They asked us to pull it down, but it was just too late, it was all over the web. And besides, it wasn't a breach of any agreement.

Journalists and bloggers are not the untrustworthy ones—in fact, we're probably the only ones who still have some respect for the secrecy. As it stands now, anything that appears in public or via honest-to-goodness leak is fair game, embargo or not. But I encourage the industry to take it one step further: if the product appears in any form, we should be at liberty to share what you have given us directly, in informative briefings and press events. Why run half-assed product announcements when we know the full story? That doesn't hurt us, it only hurts you, the companies.

The point of an NDA is to keep competitors, retailers and consumers from knowing what's next, for reasons of competitve advantage or product sell-through. But when you can't keep the secret, why should the news suffer?

That said, it is not my plan to ever break an NDA or even a verbally agreed-to embargo. But I strongly encourage you to recognize that when the cat gets out of the bag, you should release us from our embargoes. Otherwise, all you'll keep getting from us are secondhand-sourced stories that only tell half of the news, with a tiny follow-up when the product is officially acknowledged.