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Why PR Exclusives are a Bad Idea

December 7, 2011

I’ve just had another experience this week that reinforces my view that PR exclusives are a bad idea. For the uninitiated, a PR exclusive is where you give your ‘news’ to a particular media outlet either before you issue it more generally, or where you only give the story to that one publication to the exclusion of all others.

That said, there are (extremely) limited circumstances where I would do a PR exclusive, but I’ll go into that later.

Generally, your PR agency or in-house PR manager will be keen to do an exclusive to ensure much bigger coverage of your story in what your PR team considers to be a ‘tier one’ media outlet.

There are a number of circumstances where an exclusive would be considered:

  1. A big contract win – generally involving some combination of: big dollar value; prominent brand or government agency; multi-year agreement; new product or service; very competitive environment.
  2. A client case study – again, involving some combination of: prominent brand or government agency; new product or service; great business outcome; quantifiable benefits or outcomes.
  3. A major business announcement – which might include financial results, the launch of a new product or service, a major award, etc.

My most recent experience was with a client case study this week – but it demonstrates most of the reasons why PR exclusives are a bad idea.

I was on the periphery for this one, with another company and its PR agency driving the process.  In fact, the PR agency involved started working on the opportunity five months earlier, and tried to pitch what was then a contract win as an exclusive to a couple of the ‘tier one’ publications. One of the publications expressed an interest, but wanted to wait for the project to be completed and the benefits fully realised before running with the story.

With the project in question having a pretty quick implementation period, within a few months the PR agency was back talking to the publication, and lining up the interview and photo shoot with the client. Then came the waiting game. We got word that the story had been filed to appear the following week and, when it didn’t appear, we were told that the story had been pushed to make room for other news. It’s now not likely to get a run until January or February next year (provided we can keep it exclusive for them).

Now, I’ve been in this situation before. When the editor is reviewing upcoming articles for the section next year, I know what’s going to be asked:

“Why are we featuring this case study? That implementation happened six months ago.”

The last time that happened to me, the story never ran.

Let’s stop for a minute and look at the positives from a PR exclusive, if the story does see light of day and get published.

  1. You get coverage for a story in a tier one publication that might not have covered the story if you went out on general release to the media.
  2. You most likely get in-depth coverage, with photography, which will ensure higher readership.
  3. Your spokespeople are interviewed and featured (possibly with a photo) in the article.

Now, let’s think about the negatives:

  1. It may take weeks (or months!) for the story to appear and, by agreeing to an exclusive, that prevents you from talking about your news publicly until it does publish. By publicly, I’m not just talking about the media. Generally, you will want to ensure that the story stays secret, so you can’t talk to your partners or customers about it either, or use other channels such as your website or social media to publicise the story.
  2. It limits the coverage your news will receive in other publications – one, because it has already been covered extensively by the exclusive media outlet; and two, because it is most likely ‘old’ news when it does appear (see point 1 above).
  3. Other journalists and publications will be angry that you have given the news as an exclusive to one publication, making them less likely to run your story in their outlet and, longer-term, it is likely to damage the relationship your organisation or your PR agency has with those journalists or publications that feel unjustly excluded.
  4. Your story might never run. You are dealing with media outlets, where the big news of the day will always push your story to the backburner. Think about all those PR agencies in the IT sector pitching their exclusives the week before Steve Jobs died! Given that the outlet knows that it has the luxury of an exclusive, there is no haste to publish and eventually the story either gets forgotten or becomes too out-dated to still be newsworthy.

When you think about it, it all comes back to asking the question:

“Why am I doing PR?”

The answer has to be:

“To tell my organisation’s story.”

To me, a PR exclusives more often than not gets in the way of this core goal. Telling your story is much more than just a feature article in a tier one publication.

However, I did say earlier that there are (extremely) limited circumstances where I will do a PR exclusive. The basic question you need to ask yourself is this:

“Is this the best and most effective way I can be telling this story?”

There is a lot more to it than just that, but I want to keep some of my intellectual property exclusive now, don’t I? 🙂

(Pictured: “School Beast Freed”, Martin Deutsch, available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2011 12:51 pm

    “Other journalists and publications will be angry that you have given the news as an exclusive to one publication, making them less likely to run your story in their outlet and, longer-term, it is likely to damage the relationship your organisation or your PR agency has with those journalists or publications that feel unjustly excluded.”

    As a long time editor I’ve found blacklisting PR companies (or their industry clients) who give exclusives to rival titles is highly effective.

    This isn’t an ego thing or pettiness. News is competitive. I simply can’t afford to trust anyone who does this. If it happens once it can happen again.

    And, years later, I still have a small list of PR names in my head listed under “untrustworthy” or “liar”.

    • December 7, 2011 1:20 pm

      Thanks for the comment Bill! I’m a strong believer that from the corporate comms side, we just need to be telling our story the best way we can, and letting the media decide if it is worth following up on and reporting.

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