Curse of the Cinderella embargo dogs public information

Large organisations are sometimes allowed to try too hard to control the message

Ryanair had embargo about its deals for Cyber Week. Why should journalists abide by private company’s marketing promotions? Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty

We need to talk about a pestilence that causes an itch in Irish journalism, especially in reportage of large companies and State organisations. I refer to publication embargoes, which are endemic. Community transmission of them is currently way too high. We need a circuit breaker to stop the news agenda being overly manipulated by public relations.

Embargoes are agreements between journalists and sources, made without the knowledge of readers or viewers, to delay publishing a story until a specific day or time. “We promise not to reveal your news until you say so.” It is one of those navel-gazing media issues that ought to pass by ordinary readers.

The truth is that the now virus-like prevalence of embargoes in journalism, and the supine manner in which they are accepted, skews the flow of media content to readers and viewers every day, to the benefit of major organisations. The journalism-consuming public ought to be included in the debate about embargoes – to be told how they can be useful, but also why they’re often problematic.

The staggering prevalence of embargoes in business journalism risks chipping away at editorial independence

All media organisations in Ireland and abroad regularly receive information “under embargo”. It occurs multiple times a day in business journalism. It is almost always supplied in advance by public relations professionals working on behalf of large organisations. It is supplied on the basis that it, in effect, remains “off the record” until the agreement expires.


It is not legally binding. Rather, it is a form of etiquette. At any one time, most major news organisations in Ireland sit on the same pieces of embargoed information, keeping them secret from readers and viewers until such time as everybody reports them together. Embargoes usually last only a day or two.

They are not inherently a bad thing. I, along with most other journalists, regularly adhere to embargoes if I judge it to be advantageous. It can be useful for both sides – the journalist and the source. If the information is complex or technical, such as a scientific or financial report, the journalist has time to absorb the data and ask intelligent questions before the pressure of publication. An embargo can be a valuable heads up.

It also can be operationally efficient. For example, stories that appear on a Monday are generally written the day before on Sunday, when the rest of the working world is on a day off and harder to reach. They often contain information obtained under embargo earlier in the week, when everybody was at work and issues could be ironed out.

Complex information

Embargoes are also of benefit to the source, if it means complex information is better understood. The company or State agency can later make the official announcement, assured that it will be accurately reported to the public by a well-informed journalist. Embargoes are also especially common in arts and technology journalism, allowing reviewers to have their verdicts ready in time for the official release of a book or product. That is in everybody’s interests.

What, then, is the problem?

The first issue is that the staggering prevalence of embargoes in business journalism, in particular, risks chipping away at editorial independence. It gives PR professionals and companies too much influence, too often, over the editorial process, if they feel they can effectively dictate the time of publication. They will dictate it to their own advantage, and not to that of readers.

Embargoes are supposed to be a pre-arranged agreement between both sides, much like “off the record” – both sides must say yes for it to take effect. If a company or PR professional asks to send something under embargo, the journalist can weigh it up and say no if it doesn’t suit them, or their readers.

But in practice in Ireland, organisations usually try to impose embargoes unilaterally. Typically, a statement is emailed out of the blue with EMBARGOED across the top in bold letters. You don’t have a chance to say no. You already have the information, whether or not you agree to sit on it. This is simply PR muscle flexing that journalists should always resist.

PR professionals are not being nefarious or underhand. They are simply doing their job

If the source is being very assertive, they write STRICTLY EMBARGOED in red ink. State regulators, such as the Central Bank of Ireland, especially love to do this. The Department of Enterprise is another. It is a power play.

The real issue is that, most often, the organisation isn’t revealing information under embargo because it is complex or to aid understanding. It does it to create an artificial buzz over a routine announcement by trying to corral multiple media organisations into reporting it at exactly the same time. If everyone has it under embargo, all will report it for fear of being seen to be left behind. This distorts a story’s relevance in the news agenda, leading readers astray.

Jockeying into position

With a weak story or bland announcement, it is sometimes done with the intention of jockeying it into position for a slot in the next day’s print version of a newspaper, which is more likely if it hasn’t already been covered online the day before. The giveaway is when it is sent during the day with the unrequested rider that it is EMBARGOED UNTIL 00.01 AM. I call this the Cinderella embargo.

Cinderella embargoes are everywhere nowadays. In their ubiquity, they are over-used by communications professionals, who may be acting rationally from their perspective, but who only play the Cinderella card because journalists don’t push back on it enough.

Over the past week or so, my inbox, like many others, has been littered with such missives, where there the benefit of delay accrues to the company or State agency wearing the glass slipper, with little for readers. Agreeing to meaningless delays also feeds the perception that journalists are too close to message handlers.

For example, Ryanair released Cinderella-embargoed information to journalists in recent days about its deals for Cyber Week. Why should journalists be expected to adjust publication times to dovetail with a private company's marketing promotions? Leo Varadkar, our message-obsessed Tánaiste and Minister for Business, recently put a unilateral Cinderella embargo on a call for proposals for the Government's Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund. For what purpose, other than to control the newsflow?

Sinn Féin’s Eoin O’Broin recently put a Cinderella embargo on comments about a Daft report on the housing market. Presumably, it was to dovetail with the Daft report that was, itself, separately embargoed. But if O’Broin had something of substance to say, he should have just said it without restriction. Instead, he embargoed it in the hope of getting coverage in the news reports on Daft.

KBC Bank this week asked for a Cinderella embargo to reveal the results of its monthly consumer confidence survey. Why? Readers would have been better served if media organisations published that information as soon as they got it. The telecoms company Eir recently similarly embargoed a release about its partnership with the charity Age Action. The only reason to do this was to try to claim a piece of real estate in the print versions of newspapers the next day. It made no sense for readers.

Most of these Cinderella announcements are going to come out anyway. It is simply a matter of when. PR professionals are not being nefarious or underhand. They are simply doing their job. But journalists, who by rights ought not to feel bound by unilateral embargoes, should also feel free to do theirs.