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How Organizations Can Successfully Evolve Through Intentional Ambiguity

As more and more industries and organizations find themselves being disrupted by technology, the need to change business models, strategies, skill sets, processes and mindset becomes more and more critical to success, if not survival.

For the past two decades, change management approaches and techniques have involved a flurry of cookie-cutter check-lists designed to offer comfort and an idealistic view to leaders and managers challenged with disrupting the status quo.

But what have we truly learned through this tumultuous time?

Well, fully two-thirds of change efforts don’t attain the goals and results sought. While, for the most part, human beings often resist change, the fact is, what they really fight off is the lack of commitment and consistency necessary to believe in the effort.

Further, the need for clarity around change cited by consultants to gain buy-in is actually a deterrent to achievement.

But, how can that be?  As communicators, we preach that clarity is essential to trust and alignment of organizational objectives and imperatives.  Having close to 25 years in guiding organizations through change via strategic communications, I’ve found that confusion not clarity has more impact on changing behaviors.  Confusion, in the form of new operating structures, new reporting lines, new responsibilities, and new decision-making models, forces people to readjust their perspective. Clarity, on the other hand, reinforces current behavior and allows people to find ways to work around the system.

The most recent example: Ford.  As the poster child of an industry under siege, Ford is attempting to design a more fluid, progressive business as it gears up for a complete transformation of its century old industry, one that is technologically driven vs. engineering based. When the board ousted CEO Mark Fields, citing a lack of strategy and a depressed stock price, new CEO Jim Hackett went to work implementing a new operating and decision-making structure. The new model increases responsibilities among key executives, reduces the amount of direct reports at the senior level, and reshuffles key parts of the business.

The initial take-away: A lot of confusion about who does what and where things fall.

The intended result:  Executives must now figure out this new world order and forge relationships to achieve their goals or risk demotion, or even dismissal.

Rather than a neat, tidy picture of the future, complete with PowerPoints, visuals, and motivational phrases (e.g. “One Team, One Mission”, “Creating the Future Together”), Ford is upending its leadership system to force the change necessary to sustain the enterprise.

This is not just a new organizational chart.  It’s a purposeful way to force people to leave their comfort zones and wade through the confusion so they can find purpose and create value.

Will it work? Only time will tell, but spending valuable resources on a vision statement, new logo, business strategy, narrative, etc. – without first putting people in a position where they must shift their thinking and learn to operate collaboratively— would most definitely have had a negative and possibly fatal result!

Change is about understanding human behavior.  Strategic Communications is about connecting ideas and people in a mutually beneficial manner.  Recognizing how the two intersect to create a strong proximate objective – Confusion – pushes people to venture into unexplored areas resulting in the very change in thinking and actions being sought.

With all the talk today around analytics and data, internal communicators are rightly focused on bringing a sense of discipline and accuracy to their work.  However, along with the rigor data intelligence provides, dealing with human behavior involves an artist’s touch.

To that end, our corporate strategy team recently sat down with Internal Communication leaders from several global manufacturing companies to discuss how they approach internal communications in their organizations balancing the growing ability to incorporate analytics with the vagaries of human dynamics.

Our conversations resulted in key findings across five areas: the communications function, insights about employees, content, channels, and measurement.

Their insights reinforce Internal Communications is at an inflection point. There is a new opportunity (and business imperative) for Internal Communications teams to reinvent themselves and redefine their contribution to executive leaders, managers and employees, thanks to improved access to information.

The Communications Function: How it’s Changing for Global Manufacturing Companies

  • Internal and External Communications teams must collaborate more given the increasing overlap between internal and external sources of information.
  • Communications personnel are being shifted from corporate positions into business divisions and regions to ensure sufficient operational communications support, and balanced pull through of the enterprise’s context.
  • The trending lean-centralized structure is enhancing business acumen across teams, but also creating new challenges such as: collaboration, content management and local distractions.

Insights About Employees: Companies Are Still Figuring It Out

  • Communications teams have limited data about employees that go beyond the organizational structure – office/non-office, division, manager, region – resulting in high-level employee targeting and information overload.
  • Companies are interested, and beginning to invest in, better employee research via external research experts.
  • Reaching non-office workers is still a challenge; companies are at different levels of effectiveness.

Content: A United Approach

More functions, outside of Communications, are involved in content development. This is leading to cross-functional editorial teams.

Channels: What’s Trending Today

  • Email and intranet sites are still key. Employees see both resources as credible. Intranets are being optimized to address universally weak search capabilities and to add smartphone capability while consolidating design.
  • Video is an emerging tool – a beneficial add to the channel mix but not a substitution for other channels as employee opinion on the usefulness of video is mixed.
  • Employees expect mobile access to internal and external information in and out of work. Intranets are being enhanced to address this and some companies are investing in apps.
  • While a diverse channel mix is needed, tool and channel overload is a concern, and for some companies, already a problem.

Measurement: Getting the Basics and Beyond

  • Measurement practices pull basic engagement data about channels and viewership but isn’t as actionable for communications improvement, yet.
  • Companies are eager to identify and master behavioral engagement metrics, but there isn’t a clear path to get there.

What We Learned

The most beneficial Internal Communications teams today – regardless of size and industry – find the right balance of discussing enterprise and operational information at the business unit and regional levels.

  • Teams are business experts first and communicators second.
  • They curate, contextualize and enable information and knowledge sharing in and outside the company.
  • They advocate for employee needs in their conversations with executives to inform content development and to decrease the overall volume of information shared.
  • Teams strengthen relationships throughout the enterprise by learning more about employee career imperatives – why they come to work, their motivation – and tailoring and targeting content according to these interests.
  • They also make sure executives receive and apply insights from employees.

Increasingly, internal communicators are finding themselves in a similar position as corporate brand – multiple people shape them, which makes management both difficult and important. One thing is certain through all this upheaval – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to communicating and engaging today’s workforce, especially with so many change factors at play. It is a balance of the rational and the emotional.  A melding of science and art.

It’s 2017, so it’s fair to ask: What’s your Internal Communications’ art?

I recently had the pleasure of spending the entire day serving as a WATCH D.O.G.S. dad at my kid’s elementary school. With my oldest about to head into middle school, it’s now or never. WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads Of Great Students)  allow dads like me to work right along-side the educators as they read and work on assignments with students, play at recess, eat lunch with students, watch the school entrances and hallways, assist with traffic flow and any other assigned activities where they actively engage with not only their own students, but other students as well.

So how is this relevant in the world of marketing and communications? We talk a lot about ensuring our target audiences have a positive user experience through the ways they interact with our companies and/or brands. In the early phases of developing new product or service most marketers conduct extensive market research – focus groups, concept testing, card sorting to online panels, and any other number of traditional research methods. Ethnographic market research (“EMR”) is a powerful way to understand  their consumer in terms of cultural trends, lifestyle factors, attitudes and how social context influences product selection and usage. While EMR can take a few forms, the idea is to change the research setting from ‘behind the glass’ to a real-world setting, generally in-home or onsite where you immerse yourself into the customer’s life and the context of their day-to-day lives. That’s the opportunity I had to get into in the daily lives of my kids, their classmates, and sitting at the tiny desks and chairs of their elementary school.

Below are the 3 primary lessons I learned and how they reminded me to dig deeper as a strategist working with our teams and clients.

1. Spend Time in Their World – and Sitting in Their Chairs

I cannot count the number of soapbox lectures I’ve given my two boys on the importance of focus in the classroom. Yes, it’s been a LONG time since I sat in the elementary classroom and boy times have changed. I was so impressed at how teachers leverage technology – from videos, interactive games, mix of individual and group work, and organizing the day to switch from mental energy zapping subjects. My perspective is much more refreshed now that I’ve spent considerable time sitting in their (tiny) chairs.

Now think back to your target audience. What does their typical day look like? How are they switching between channels throughout the day – and what are the triggers for the switch? What are they looking for and are there ways to draw them in when they’re trying to be entertained or media snacking? Are they switching roles or “hats” throughout the day – from mom to manager to spouse to ‘me time’? When is the last time you spent time with your target audience? The simplest way is to look for online evidence of what’s top of mind – readbloggers who are in the target audience (and the comments on their popular posts), get help surfacing key themes from social, or find other media such as non-fiction books, podcasts, or vlogs where your audience is sharing stories from their lives. Do everything you can to spend time living aspects of their lives and “sitting in their chairs,” regardless of the size.

2. Learn From Their Influencers – the Good and the Bad

After killing it as all-time pitcher in kickball during 3rd grade PE class, I had the chance to spend time with several teachers while WatchDOG’ing recess. I genuinely wanted to hear from them what their biggest challenges are, how times have changed as educators, and what they feel is working with this generation of students. They shared their thoughts and experiences in trying to meet kids where they are and give them the best chance to advance, using methods designed to tap into a generation of students who live in an on-demand, digital, and device-heavy world. These wonderful teachers have a great influence on my kids and their peers.

In sitting through a few of classes with each of my two kids, I was reminded that you cannot replace the experience of observing in-person and in their environment. It was telling to see a few kids that my kids mention as their buddies who appeared to be good examples and influences while others are kids who we discuss how my boys may have the opportunity to positively influence or steer clear.

At W2O Group, we preach the importance of understanding influencers and their influence on a given audience or segment. Our analytics teams are amazing at what they can find and surface through a number of proprietary methods and tools. It starts by identifying, listening and learning from these individuals, outlets, and organizations so you know how to best approach them to establish authentic, transparent partnerships. You’ll clearly see a pattern of language and information flow than is very useful in engaging your customers. Ask yourself, do you know where your audience gets their information? Who do they look to for credible advice or information? If you don’t know or answer “Google?” then we need to talk.

3. Can You Explain it to a 3rd Grader?

As a part of my day, I was asked to explain what I do for a living to a room full of 3rd and 5th graders. Explaining the components of a brand strategy and how I go about researching and finding the key insight in the 3C’s was not going to cut it. Instead, I simplified my approach and explained it through a product they would all know and understand; quickly highlighting the steps involved, potential marketing channels, and examples from my career. As a result, they asked a ton of great (and hilarious) questions that demonstrated they understood and grasped the general idea. AND, as an added bonus, both of my sons finally understand what I do for a living!

It is amazing how verbose and complex we marketers can make our brands, products, or services over the process of brand messaging development. Of course, we rarely set out to intentionally do so, but it’s a common side effect of brand differentiation and doing everything possible to get a competitive advantage.

Start by evaluating the simplified version of your [brand, new product, idea] with your team. Share that with your a handful of people around you beyond your direct reports or marketing counterparts. Heck, explain it to your partner, parents, and/or kids. What are their reactions or feedback? Was there something missing? Do the simplified RTBs or key message points sound too similar or distinct enough? There is a good chance you’ll find holes you need to address and you saved time and money in realizing this now.

In the end, I enjoyed the chance to serve at my kids school and spend the day seeing them in their daily environment. Look for ways to do the same in the work you’re doing. Immerse yourself in THEIR world – listen and learn – and simplify the message. This is what we all want from the brands we engage with personally so why not do our best as marketers and communicators to offer the same to those audiences we serve?

For those of us who strive to ensure organizations work in the most optimal way through greater trust, engagement and performance, we are experiencing what may well turn out to be a watershed moment in terms of maturation and achievement.

Personally, being involved in organizational excellence for well over 25 years—counseling, teaching, leading, learning—my journey continues to be one of fascination and enlightenment. The following commentary is meant for everyone in this professional space to assess, align, argue, challenge, and assimilate.

The objective is to truly see things clearly, comprehend what’s really taking place inside organizations, and acting accordingly to achieve results.

Please click on the cover image to view the report.

This the second part of two-part series on the state of organizational communications in a digital age focusing the new workforce

As we probe deeper, there is much to consider as we look to complete the intricate communications and engagement puzzle that creates a picture of organizational excellence. Social media is a facet of digital communication encouraging community and networks of interest to emerge and thrive both externally and internally.

Below is a continuation of the insights, thoughts, and trends identified in part 1:

12. False Positives Still Cloud Judgement – Digital is causing a passive loyalty among employees that clouds leadership’s thinking with regard engagement and motivation. People tend to tell employers what they want to hear especially in times of uncertainty and change protecting themselves and keeping their options open.  From a macro standpoint, if your organizational communications strategy and plan is not tied to the overall business strategy and plan it is worth little. Metrics in this regard should be designed to show a correlation and causality between communications and the stated business goals.  Such an approach keeps your efforts grounded in what needs to be accomplished.

13. Glassdoor Challenges EveryoneIt continues to astonish me that our interest in technology far outweighs our focus on achieving outcomes such as stronger relationships internally. I often see technology being used without regard for how it will lead to a better situation. Incorporating new ways of reaching and engaging people is critical to success but overcompensating on the tactical side only leads to complexity and obfuscation…For example, GlassDoor is another window into an organization and being used by job seekers and others to round out their perspective. It must be part of how a communicator assesses the overall perception of the company and result in more effective trust builders … leading to the next point:

14. Social/Digital Complements but Doesn’t Supplant F2F– The most effective communications method ever devised is Face-to-Face. Knowing that, every other method or approach should be designed to reflect or reinforce that truth.

15. Is Your CEO “Social?” – CEOs are migrating faster to social and digital outreach to get their message out and build support for their agenda.  But the reality is that most attempts still appear disingenuous and one-sided.  Being social means listening, debating, challenging, and respecting opinions.  To truly break through, CEOs need to give up control and let their personality be discovered.  Only then will their ideas and opinions be heard and possibly endorsed.

16. Centering “Advocacy” as the Means to Instill Confidence, Camaraderie – My strong belief is that this year is going to be a year in which Employee Advocacy as a meaningful customer attraction and retention lever will gain traction. The benefits are numerous: authentic voice for the company and its products/services with customers and consumers; catalyst for networking and relationship-building among employees throughout the enterprise; credible voice to balance arguments.

17. Multiple Platforms for Different Story Lines – The era of story line development internally is upon us. Instead of one message fits all – both content and channel – breaking down stories into pieces and placing them on different platforms allows employees to find the most meaningful subject line to relate to. Doing so adds to much richer content furthering enhancing people’s knowledge of the business.

18. Getting the Ds Right – It’s about dialogue, discussion, debate vs dissemination. If people aren’t talking about it, it doesn’t matter.

19. Print Ain’t Dead – Contrary to popular belief, print remains an important medium in reaching certain segments of employees – specifically manufacturing, sales, retirees, and employee families. In 2016, print will increase as part of an internal communications ecosystem in organizations looking to gain an edge with specific audiences.

20. Video Needs to Enhance Story Development – As mentioned above, the use of video and visual elements are being inculcated into how communicators are telling stories for employees.

21. Employee Engagement Starts at the Point of Hire – An emerging trend to watch involves organizations establishing expectations for employees in terms of engagement, involvement, information exchange, and communications right at the beginning of employment.

22. Social Collaboration is a Two-Way Street – In past years, the biggest knock on social collaboration platforms was that employees stayed away in droves. Those that did participate spent more time buying and selling home items than learning about the business or building new relationships with colleagues. For social collaboration to bring about the necessary benefits to organizational success such as knowledge sharing, constructive disagreement, relationship-building, discovering new ideas, and challenging entrenched beliefs, both leadership/management and the workforce at large must participate together and consistently. Doing so breaks down barriers and encourages interaction.

From a workforce perspective, the one constant is Relevance.  If our narrative, messages, policies, and decisions connect with employees allowing them to adapt accordingly to the changing environment making the argument themselves then we’ve accomplished our mission.

And the business its goals.

The only problem is that communicators don’t determine Relevance.  Individuals do.

Relevance is the Holy Grail but Communicators Can’t Get There (Alone)

Getting as close to our audience as possible – employing analytics and research – to understand what resonates with people…words, visuals, stories.  The game is about connecting the business priorities to people’s reality including interests, connections, fears, passion, ideas.

When leaders and communicators recalibrate roles to and they become observer and target instead of seeing the workforce that way, Relevance is discovered.

What’s Ahead

While people can debate the nuances and intricacies of organizational effectiveness and communications in today’s digital reality, there is one thing we can all agree on – it should be an incredible journey!

Since it was first published in 1998, the FORTUNE Best Places to Work list causes executives from around the globe to measure and mirror policies and programs in an attempt to replicate the “secret sauce” that results from such recognition: trust and admiration from employees. In reading the 2017 report and the individual company vignettes, one is both amazed and awash in the progressive thinking (Salesforce’s gender-pay equality), novel benefits ($5 co-pays at BCG), cool perks (free birthday cakes at Wegmans) and unconventional values (Bairds’ “no-asshole” policy which mirrors W2O’s by the way!), that comprise the list.

The real insight, though, from these well-respected organizations, can be found in four key areas:

  1. Constantly Challenging People – From paid time off for training and development, to mentoring programs and incentive-laden goal-setting, employees are recognized, rewarded and encouraged to continue learning.
  2. Choose your Own Adventure – Business is not a one size fits all experience. Particularly in today’s digital world. These organizations respect the need for individualism in the workforce and incorporate communications systems, management models, and social purpose opportunities that allow for it to take place.
  3. Respect and Humane Treatment – At the very core all of the FORTUNE companies on the list exhibit a deep respect for how people live not just work. As such, everything from policies, programs, perks, and relationships between and among all level of the business.  
  4. Rock-solid Efficacy – Regardless of the business and sector, employees believe in the mission of the enterprise. From supporting children with catastrophic illnesses (St. Jude Children’s Hospital) to selling “happiness” at Build-A-Bear Workshop, capturing the ultimate reason for being at each of these companies and allowing it to permeate their work and inspire their performance.

Establishing your organization as best place to work is not a random journey. It’s truly a conscious choice to involve, engage, and respect people and to be true to the ideals of the business.

Finally, there is no mystery surrounding this coveted list. Rather, it’s a pragmatic understanding of human behavior and the systematizing of information, strategy, policy, purpose, and culture to deliver a meaningful and sustainable experience.

Gary

Never was a truer sentence spoken.

The world changes whether we like it or not, and for many of us, unless we have to change, we don’t. Most people are only too aware of what they don’t know, and the last thing they need is for you to rub it in.

Bob Pearson points to the conundrum in his book Storytizing. “Even when we face reality as it is, we tend to see the world in today’s terms. We rarely push ourselves enough to truly look around the corner and open our minds to how reality will change before our eyes.”

“Will we embrace the revolution in digital communications and marketing and use it to our advantage—perhaps even guiding the change at times—or will we make the leap to what’s new only when we have no other choice?”

What’s the best way to adapt, learn and grow in a dynamic marketplace?

The answer is ironically obvious: look outside! Most of us stay within our industry sphere to help us become better at what we do. To truly think differently, though, we need to step away from our desks, get outside our sphere of influencers and learn something different. If we see and learn how others solve problems, we can rejuvenate our thinking.

W2O Group recently concluded W2O at SXSW, its annual lineup of events around SXSW that center on thought leadership and innovation—and what’s next. This same spirit of learning and innovation continues at the National Summit on Strategic Communications on May 9-10, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia.

The Strategic Summit—now in its eighth year—is, by design, different. The Summit attracts a unique mix of senior corporate communications and agency executives, military public affairs officers and government relations executives along with experts at NGOs and leading universities.

Innovation is the thread that runs through all Summit content. The Summit is global in scope, attracting leaders from at least a dozen countries. Says Summit Director Robert Grupp, “You meet leaders at this Summit who you normally would not meet anywhere else. This is where learning takes place.”

Great leaders see opportunities. They never see barriers; they visualize solutions. And they know how to unlock their personal innovation. Jim Weiss, CEO and Founder of W20 Group, will deliver a plenary “Summit Snapshot” on being “Future Ready” and harnessing:

  • Curiosity – Always looking for the why and what’s next
  • Embracing technology – Seeing new solutions and benefits
  • Utilizing data and insight into planning – Becoming savvy about analytics in uncovering opportunities
  • Innovating fast and frequently – Seeking out new approaches and methodologies and learning quickly.

W2O Group is excited to participate as “Summit Co-Chair,” extending the learning from W2O at SXSW, encouraging colleagues to think differently and equipping professionals with sophisticated new tools to better understand how brand messages proliferate and who helps shape them.

Other Summits highlights include:

BRAND STORIES: The disruption being experienced in all sectors means we have to pay even greater attention to the customer experience with our brand message across every channel on which it appears. Case studies by Chief Communications Officers from Bechtel, FedEx and The Hershey Company will reveal strategies to ensure that a brand story is well-told wherever the customer finds it.

DATA DOESN’T LIE: But we’re only as good as the analysts are at telling us how to make data actionable and change behaviors. Brad Parscale, former Digital Director for the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign, will explain how the data operation ran everything from TV buys to the ground operation, revealing “persuadable targets” and virtually everything the campaign needed to know to win.

GLOBAL MINDSETS: For global organizations, sensitivity to cultural differences enables employees to overcome inevitable challenges in diverse global teams. W2O Group’s Gary Grates will moderate a discussion among CCOs from multi-national’s including Johnson Controls and Takeda Pharmaceutical Company on how to develop a distinct completive advantage by developing employees who are adept at working across borders.

PREDICTIVE ANALYTICS: Many voices have claimed that pollsters lost Brexit and the U.S. election because their predictions were so off the mark. We can’t predict the future, but we can identify patterns in peoples’ behaviors. W2O Chief Innovation Officer Bob Pearson joins Politico’s Director of Audience Insights Rebecca Haller to explore how to optimize your marketing spend with reliable predictive analytics.

THE CIRCUS: Debuting last year on Showtime, this was a highly rated docu-series that took viewers through the weekly madness of the 2016 presidential race. Now back for a second seasons and subtitled “Inside the Biggest Story on Earth,” the Strategic Summit welcomes co-producer Mark McKinnon, who will pull back the curtain and show the story behind the headlines and the human drama of what goes on in political work and in the Trump Presidency.

“We encourage every Summit speaker and panelist to push the boundaries of today’s practices and identify and anticipate what skills will be required and what techniques and tools will be used tomorrow,” says Summit Director Bob Grupp. “It’s a challenge for people to talk only about what’s coming next—versus what’s happening right now—but that’s where ‘aha moments’ occur, when the solutions to problems suddenly become crystal clear.”

Finally, Bob Pearson will lead a popular, high-energy closing session—encouraging delegates to “think two years out”—a closing session that will succinctly identify major takeaways from the two-day Strategic Communications Summit.

“Most of us resist change at first,” Bob adds. “We’ll keep reading the same reports and secondary research our competitors have. We’ll do the same primary research using the same methodology we’ve employed for the past decade.”

But we can rejuvenate our thinking.

Join us at the 2017 National Summit on Strategic Communications (www.strategicsumit.com) and choose to learn differently. Evolve your models, and commit yourself to understanding how the marketplace is truly changing.

See you in Arlington on May 9-10!

# # #

NOTE: Register online at www.strategicsummit.com using discount code C881W20 and receive 15% off standard registration.

Last week 33 of the best and brightest digital marketers and communicators participated in our 7th Annual PreCommerce Summit to discuss “What’s Next” in business, marketing and communications. We heard Bayer’s Ray Kerins talk about partnerships (beyond logos) and U.S. Department of State Haroon Ullah and Stratfor’s Reva Goujon debunk myths about extremism. And, my favorite, we heard Judith Williams of Dropbox talk about unconscious bias.

With all this talk about “what’s next,” we’ve been asking this question of management:

What’s next in the art of managing people, products and services? 

For us, it’s about understanding what’s going on now, inside your organization, and how this experience reflects outwardly, to impact your customers’, partners’ and investors’ perception of you. This clarity puts leaders in the position to pinpoint organizational improvements, which in turn transfer externally and improve business results.

Doing this, however, hasn’t been easy, or precise.

Typically, people have taken an inside look at their organization’s people and processes through qualitative and quantitative research methods. While important, this step alone is like acting on data without context – it’s misleading. By only looking internally to answer how effective your employees and operations are neglects the opinion and perspective of audiences that tell the world if you matter – your customers, suppliers, partners, and investors.

That’s why we take an inside and outside approach to help leaders create a more responsive enterprise for employees, customers, partners, and investors.

We help leaders answer:

  • Is our enterprise aligned?
  • Are we valued?
  • How do these two impact each other?
  • Where can we make internal improvements that drive results (and how)?

Through our advanced digital analytics and organizational management expertise we’re helping Fortune 500 companies make internal adjustments that improve results. Not only do leaders get a snapshot of what productivity looks like across functions and how it is impacting performance, but also they get a roadmap to pragmatically make improvements from the inside out.

This convergence of employee productivity and external stakeholder confidence in the enterprise itself (reflected in strong business performance) is the new organizational effectiveness – it’s what’s next.

We’d love to talk with you about the work we’re doing across healthcare, consumer products and technology to help leaders remove internal friction and drive results, especially during times of change. For more information about what we’re up to and how it might help you, drop us a line.

There’s nothing like gearing up for a major announcement only to find that one of your reporters broke embargo. Unfortunately, it can be quite common in the public relations (PR) industry. To prevent these unfortunate instances from happening, we often times have to ask ourselves certain questions: How secure is a press embargo? Can we trust this particular reporter not to break the embargo? Are there steps to help ensure security? It’s up to us as PR professionals to consider these types of variables when strategizing media efforts.

First Off, What is a Press Embargo?

A news embargo or press embargo is a gentleman’s agreement between a reporter and a source to hold a specific piece of news confidential until a pre-established date and time or until certain conditions have been met. Typically, reporters know that if you’ve set a press embargo, you’re likely pitching the story to multiple journalists. If your embargo and the wire time for the press release are the same, the reporter who’s reviewing your news in advance is in competition with the wire service to be first with the news.

How to Prevent Reporters from Breaking Your Embargo

Establishing the date and time of your embargo and including that on all correspondences with media is key. Heather, a member of Pure’s media team, strongly suggests confirming time zones and specifying A.M. versus P.M. What does “tomorrow” mean? To reporters, this could mean 12:01am – give them a time frame for when they can post if an exact time is not available. What may seem like minor details can actually make all the difference in the world, she says.

In addition, ask the reporter for his/her agreement to the embargo before sharing the news verbally or via email. If given a verbal confirmation, it never hurts to follow up with the reporter to have the confirmation in writing as well. A good PR person never assumes that a reporter or blogger will agree to or follow an embargo. Lastly, be consistent in the embargo details you share with reporters. If you decide to allow someone to break the embargo early, think through the consequences to ensure that you’re giving priority to the journalists who are cooperating with you.

A Reporter’s Favorite Kind of Embargo

Who doesn’t like a good ol’ unsolicited e-mail from a PR person sending embargoed news without asking first if the reporter agrees to the embargo? Every reporter does. The best line of defense? Always confirm a solidified date/time that the reporter agrees to prior to sharing any announcement details.

If you follow these vital steps to ensure security for your clients, embargoes can be a great tool for generating media coverage. For the reporter, agreeing to an embargo allows them more time than their competitors to prepare a well thought-out story. For the client, it’s beneficial to be able to count on a reporter to develop that thought-out story and deliver it to audiences for a different perspective on their announcement. Ultimately, embargoed information can help a reporter craft a great story, and a great story is what drives increased news coverage.