Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Managing embargo breaks

05 Sep 2019
The press release is written, approved and sent out. Researchers are prepared for media, and interviews are lined up. Then an embargo break happens... It is possible to make the best of a difficult situation.

By Ruth Francis

Sometimes the best laid plans are jeopardised by a story running before an embargo lifts. Early reporting can lose a story traction, and this is particularly frustrating if a very small article costs you bigger ones. The situation can usually be salvaged if managed calmly.

As a reminder, embargoes are usually set by journals, restricting coverage about the research until publication. Academics are restrained from talking to media from when they submit their paper, unless it is under embargo (see previous post about when to do this).

A short article appearing online after a press release has been sent out under embargo, but before the embargo lifts, is usually an error and easily resolved. If you contact the media outlet, they will often pull the article until the embargo lifts. I’ve known overnight editors post at the given time in their time zone, rather than the time zone the embargo is set in, or reporters filing 24 hours early in a muddle. These kinds of slips rarely harm the story’s coverage elsewhere if removed in time.

On occasion, these small leaks can result in more and more outlets posting their version of the story and it can be impossible to maintain the embargo. Other times, a reporter has found out about a story without the press release, isn’t beholden to an embargo and their story may appear as a surprise to you. Sometimes this happens when the reporter saw the paper on a preprint server or at a conference, and reported before you had even agreed with the academics to promote the work.

In these scenarios, you need to be clear who is ‘in charge’ of the embargo. Typically, it is the journal that set the embargo. You’ll want to make sure to let the journal know when you spot an issue. The journal team will likely want to make decisions about next steps themselves. The academics will also need reassuring. Their fear is that the journal will pull the paper, refusing to publish it if the research results are reported elsewhere first. This is the ultimate threat journals hold, but I have never known this to happen.

If you are in charge of managing a serious embargo break, first, make a list of everyone you’ll need to keep in the loop as you move forward: the researchers, any other organisations you’re coordinating with, journalists, and other internal colleagues: web teams to push your release live, the people who manage social media, and management, if appropriate. Sometimes not all the materials will be ready, but it is important is to ensure everyone has the same information and the research is available.

Lifting an embargo a few hours early is relatively straightforward. It becomes more complicated when an embargo is broken several days or weeks in advance, before the press release is written or the paper is ready to be published. In this instance, your job is to work with the journal press office and your academics to ensure everyone is on the same page: is the journal fast-tracking the paper, or upholding the embargo? Can your team respond to enquiries or are they still required not to speak to media?

If an embargo break does result in losing coverage you worked hard to set up, you still have options. Consider reaching out to another outlet that is not a direct competitor with the one that broke the embargo. Provide interview access for a longer or more detailed piece, which the outlet would not mind publishing in the weeks after the news breaks. Outlets in other territories or weekend newspapers are often a good place to pitch, and you could end up with a comprehensive report somewhere you hadn’t originally considered. Other ways to boost coverage could include running a Q&A with the researcher, or a slideshow of images that showcases the work.

Most important is not to panic and not to get upset. In working with news media, embargo breaks are one of many factors that can disrupt your coverage and it is best to manage them and move on.

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with 20 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.