Are Exclusives a Good Idea? In a Word: No

Should you give exclusives to journalists? My advice on this has always been unequivocal: No. Exclusives are a bad deal for you in the long-term and make no difference to the audience you’re trying to reach.

This question came up last night during a panel sponsored by the New England Venture Network on which I participated along with several business journalists. I broke with my colleagues on this question, but I firmly believe that exclusives are a bad idea.

Here’s my thinking: Journalists are a competitive bunch and they care deeply about who gets information first. However, no one else does. These days information travels so quickly that its source immediately becomes lost. Outside of a few big stories – such as TMZ’s scoop on the death of Michael Jackson — the public doesn’t remember where a story originated.

Journalists remember, however, and they tend to hold grudges against sources who favor their competition. Public relations is a relationship game. It’s been many years since I pounded a beat, yet I still remember a few PR people who gave stories to my competition. It’s safe to say that I never treated those people quite the same again. I’m not proud of that fact, but the reality is that it’s difficult to be chummy with someone whom you believe has slapped you in the face.

There are isolated incidents when an exclusive might work out. One of the audience members last night brought up a recent case in which her company had given The New York Times a scoop on a patent her startup company was about to receive. The story was picked up by many other outlets and she was satisfied with the results. I suppose if The New York Times is willing to promise you prominent coverage, an exclusive may be merited. But what if the story had turned up as a short squib in a “Miscellany” column or been cut by an editor? The PR person would have angered competitors and had little to show for it.

If you’re going to play the exclusive game, at least try to make it a win-win proposition. Perhaps you can offer one reporter a first interview with a customer or your CEO and give another a scoop on pricing or a particular new feature. Or you can promise the reporters you snubbed a first shot at your next big announcement.

In general, though, exclusives make one friend at the expense of making a lot of enemies. I can’t believe they are a good thing for your business in the long term.

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