Command and control public relations is over

The old “embargo” debate has hit the North American International Auto Show with the Detroit News claiming: “Automakers may rethink how they unveil vehicles to media after product news goes online early”. 

has advice for public relations practitioners: Our readers…just want information and pictures on new cars and concepts as fast as we can get them, and we’ll get them as fast as we legitimately can… end quote.

One of the basic premises of PR2.0 is that command and control is over – smart practitioners are facilitators rather than gatekeepers for their organisations.  New media is about porosity, transparency and agency (as David Philip and Anne Gregory published in 1999) as Kelly states: “The Internet is the death of everything secret

The embargo is intended to allow journalists to write more informed pieces rather than immediate reporting when news is announced.  It accommodates magazines which traditionally have had longer production cycles.  And, it aims to maximise coverage around a launch – with the goal of being the “biggest” news story on the cover of all magazines.   In the case of “first drives”, the embargo is intended to allow more journalists to be accommodated prior to first impressions being reported.

When GM spokesman Chris Preuss is reported as saying “Conservatively, the majority of our embargoes were compromised over the last six to 12 months” it isn’t surprising that a review is underway.  As he says “We want to do what is equitable and what’s in our best interest that generates the most coverage and buzz.”

Most of the online media play the “game” of respecting embargoes, but clearly cannot be expected to hold back when others break a story.  It used to be that PRs would “punish” media breaking embargoes – but most of the information being leaked hasn’t originated from “naughty” journos who can be cut off the A-list.

Florian Zettlemeyer, business professor at University of California-Berkeley identifies the “symbiotic relationship between the manufacturers and the auto magazines. They depend on each other.”  This is true, but increasingly, auto news isn’t the preserve of an insider group of specialist media. 

Anyone can set up a website or blog writing about motoring matters and what better way to attract traffic than getting the hot news.  However, if you want to build a reputation and secure the support of the industry, being a maverick may not be the best long-term strategy.  However, even the “good guys” online know they need to react fast to retain their credibility for news – another website is just a click away.

Breaking embargoes is a real challenge for print media.  Those such as US magazine, Car and Driver aim for 400,000 newsstand sales a month (of a 1.3 million-circulation).  Casual buyers in particular, may prefer their news online.  Car and Driver reports 8 million page hits monthly for new car photos. 

I think the real challenge is for different thinking – the motor industry needs a strong and healthy specialist press.  These titles can provide in-depth coverage and a more tactile experience than online.  But we need to recognise that online operates in a 24:7 immediate world – and even if the credible websites and bloggers will respect an embargo, news will out.   

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.