One of my very favorite celebrity versus journalist stories is when, during his Avengers media tour, Robert Downey, Jr. (I know, big surprise) was asked about his sordid past.
You can see him get very upset—almost like his heart is going to jump out of his chest—when the reporter takes nearly a full minute to ask him about his relationship with his father and taking drugs and drinking and whether he’s past all of it.
He looks off-camera several times, almost as if he’s waiting for permission to leave the interview before the question is asked.
My face gets hot watching it, and I’m not his publicist.
It’s clear the journalist overstepped his bounds and, I’m willing to bet, was blacklisted from interviewing RDJ (and probably his friends, too) in the future.
The Trends Have Changed
There is a lot that goes into our jobs, from celebrity or politician publicist to strategic business advisor.
Martin Waxman, who used to do celebrity publicity, likes to tell stories of the kinds of riders journalists had, just to speak to his famous clients.
I imagine this guy interviewing RDJ had a similar rider—talk all you want about the movie, but stay away from his past.
And yet, he had to try.
I remember a day when we could create video news releases and TV stations would run them, unedited.
You could embargo news and journalists abided by it.
In some cases, you could even ask for questions ahead of time and ask to review the story before it ran.
The world, though, has changed.
Video news releases went out of style in the George W. Bush era and embargoes…well, no one abides by them anymore so they’re pretty much defunct.
The word of the decade is transparency and we all live by it.
Except in the Case of the FDA
Well, it turns out most of us do…as long as we don’t work for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In the case of the FDA, however, there is a tactic called a close-hold embargo, which controls what the media can—and cannot—say about certain news.
It goes down like this: A reporter receives information from the FDA that they will get news a day before anyone else.
According to Scientific American, the reporter has to “abandon its reportorial independence.”
“My editors are uncomfortable with the condition that we cannot seek reaction,” NPR reporter Rob Stein wrote back to the government officials offering the deal. Stein asked for a little bit of leeway to do some independent reporting but was turned down flat. Take the deal or leave it.
NPR took the deal.
“I’ll be at the briefing,” Stein wrote.
Stein, along with journalists from other top-tier media outlets, agreed not to ask any questions of sources not approved by the FDA ahead of time.
This close-hold embargo allows journalists to cover the news, but only as the FDA wants to them to…without any independent reporting.
And it seems media outlets are abiding by this rule.
What is a Close-hold Embargo?
Like a regular embargo, a close-hold embargo allows early access to information provided that attendees not publish before a set date and time.
With an additional condition: Reporters are expressly forbidden from seeking outside comment.
Journalists have to give up any semblance of being able to do independent reporting on the matter before the embargo expires.
But it gets even better.
The FDA assures us—the public—that it is committed to transparency.
But, with the close-hold embargo, it turns out the government agency, in reality, denies access to many reporters and provides only half-truths to those covering the news.
Not only do they provide half-truths, the close-hold embargo prevents journalists from reporting, by threatening them if they talk to anyone outside of the FDA to tell their stories.
It feels very much like the Fourth Estate is being controlled by our government, which is not good—and which journalistic ethics associations are freaking out about (and rightfully so).
A Big Difference Between Control and Customization
I’m not so naive to think this stuff doesn’t happen.
Just two weeks ago, I was sent research in advance of actual publication and asked not to share it for a week.
And we do exclusive story angles for top-tier media when a client is going to release something big.
We don’t, however, do it embargo.
Rather, we craft different angles for those we know will want the story and we send to five to seven journalists.
We offer interviews and additional information. They are free to talk to competitors or anyone else they like.
Then we release the news on the wire two weeks later.
If someone came to us and asked to be put on the pre-newswire release list, we would happily oblige.
This is a far cry from a close-hold embargo that doesn’t allow any kind of reporting, whatsoever.
Is the Close-hold Embargo Going Too Far?
Of course, the close-hold embargo and other types of government or business manipulation of the media won’t change until journalists refuse to work this way.
Sure, it may mean someone gets the story first, but what would happen if the nine journalists invited to a briefing told the FDA they were all out?
Suddenly, the close-hold embargo is dead and journalists can go, well, back to journalism.
I don’t know the right answer from the journalist side…I’m not there and I don’t write for a top-tier media outlet.
But I do know what communications professionals can do.
We must commit to transparency and do away with these kinds of tactics.
A close-hold embargo is simply a way to control the media and shape the story…both which are not transparent, honest, or ethical.
And now it’s your turn. What do you think? Is a close-hold embargo going too far?