The last time you heard a member of the press on television say something was "off the record" you might have thought that real journalists don't say things like that. It's just too corny.

Trust me, they do. And they mean it, or they wind up with a reputation for being untrustworthy.

There are two sides to any conversation, and discussions between PR/vendors and bloggers/press are not any different. There's a level of trust that is built over time and experience that can give a blogger much more insight into the vision of a vendor and the industry and thus make his/her posts and analysis that much more valid and worth reading.

NDAs, Embargos, and Off The Record

NDAs and embargos are used by PR folks and vendors to control the publication of information while allowing them to discuss sensitive topics with the press and bloggers, sometimes to solicit feedback or analysis.

An NDA (Non-disclosure agreement) is usually used when you'll be discussing something that's considered a "trade secret" or "intellectual property" or "time sensitive". NDAs are used in two ways:

  • The information discussed is never considered appropriate for publishing
  • The information discussed will be appropriate for publishing after a given date

Usually PR folks and vendors will use the term "embargo" for the latter information, because the "embargo" is lifted on date X and the blogger/journalist is free to publish the information, but sometimes an NDA is used instead.

You'll most often see the term "embargo" used in press releases that are advance copies - that is, they are sent to the media before they are being distributed to the relevant news wires. Embargo is used to ensure you know that (1) you are receiving an advance copy of the release and (2) you can't talk about it publicly until the date provided.

It is expected that you will honor an embargo, period. No, you haven't agreed to it, but there's a sort of "honor code" in publishing that assumes you will honor an embargo without needing to be asked first. Break an embargo at your own risk. You will likely find yourself deleted from PR contact lists fairly quickly, and you won't see another advance press release.

NDAs come in two flavors: verbal and written. The problem is, of course, that verbal agreements are not legally binding in many states. The reality is that regardless of the actual legality of your agreement, it's expected that if you verbally agree to an NDA that you will honor it. You are unlikely to see a written NDA unless you're physically evaluating products or the company is very touchy about the information they're sharing with you.

In the course of a briefing (that meeting when the vendor walks through a presentation with you) it is likely that there will be some information in that presentation that is under NDA. The whole briefing isn't, just certain pieces of it. So you might suddenly, on slide 6, see or hear that the next slide is under NDA. And you weren't asked if you'd honor that. It's assumed (there's a lot of assumptions in publishing :-)) that you understood before the briefing started that there might be confidential information to be shared because you need the background offered by that confidential information to understand the importance/grandness/uniqueness/revolutionary aspect of the announcement. So don't be surprised if a portion of a deck is suddenly marked NDA and you haven't discussed NDAs with the vendor at all.

If you don't honor embargos or NDAs - or won't - then let the press and the vendor know up front or ahead of time. Add a simple page to your site or some content to wherever your contact information may be that spells out that you don't honor embargos or any other assumed methods of ensuring confidentiality without prior approval. Or tell them right away when the briefing starts. But don't be surprised if you tell them that and they decide to cancel the briefing. If you suddenly see "under NDA" on a slide and don't plan on honoring it - stop the presenter, explain that you weren't expecting that and won't honor it. Give them a chance to decide whether to stop or continue on without the NDA. If you don't say anything, it's ASSUMED you will honor that NDA, no matter where it popped up.

Off The Record

Just as a vendor uses embargos and NDAs to control what is published publicly, so you use "off the record" to ensure you aren't quoted or attributed with saying something you don't want publicly said or tied back to you. Sometimes this is because you're discussing a new feature of Product X and you want to express that you think it's better than a competitor's feature but don't want that quoted publicly just yet, sometimes it's because you're sharing gossip or rumors or even abstract knowledge.

Whatever the reason, you can use "off the record" to say things privately. PR folks and vendors honor "off the record" implicitly. You don't have to ask them to agree to it, they just "know" they must honor it just like they assume you'll honor an embargo or a verbal NDA.

This is the expectation of trust that allows press/bloggers and PR folks/vendors to discuss openly products, trends, vision, roadmaps, competitors, etc... without fear of having sensitive information exposed publicly.

If you aren't sure, ask

Asking is always an option. If you aren't sure about whether you can blog about an announcement, ask. The PR folks will gladly tell you when they're comfortable with you blogging something, and often times it may be sooner than you think. Press releases and announcements are graded by PR folks into different categories; some are super sensitive (brand new products, acquisitions, etc...) and you can't talk about them until the company announces, but others (new releases, a new feature, a strategic partnership announcement) may be less sensitive and you might be able to blog immediately about them. The PR folks/vendors will let you know if there's any restrictions they want - like sure, you can mention we're coming out with "something new in the X industry" but you can't detail the product.

So if you aren't sure, ask. It doesn't hurt, and you'll find that more often than not you'll be able to blog something on the subject.

You can break the rules - exactly once

You can, of course, break an NDA or embargo. But take my advice - if you're going to destroy your reputation, make sure it's worth it, because as we know, PR folks talk shop and if you break an NDA word will get around - quickly - and the likelihood of you ever being in the situation where it could happen again will become close to zero. I have seen folks fired for breaking verbal NDAs, so trust me when I say that PR folks and vendors take these things very seriously. And yes, that includes the "off the record" piece. I've never heard anything I've said "off the record" repeated publicly or quoted, either, and I've never worried that PR folks/vendors would break that assumed trust.

Like any relationship, trust has to be an integral part of your relationship with PR folks and the vendors they represent. If you don't trust them and they don't trust you, you aren't going to be as effective a blogger and you certainly aren't going to be able to "first post", as it were, anything. Ever.

Next up: Citations and Attributions

Imbibing: Coffee