Earlier this week I received an email that read:

"The Microsoft PR team is very conscious of the recent conversations prompted by a US media outlet breaking a Microsoft NDA around Microsoft Office (an issue which is being dealt with directly in the US), and the perceived endorsement of this article from an official Microsoft twitter account (a mistake that Microsoft has subsequently apologised for). As a reaction to these developments, we would just like to reinforce our appreciation and respect for our colleagues in the media who continue to act as professional journalists. We hope we can continue to work together on a basis of mutual trust and we sincerely hope that these recent events have not seriously dented our relationship. We certainly remain committed in the UK PR team to providing the best service possible to the UK journalist community."

It probably means little to you unless you work in the media but it might be worth explaining  a little bit about the ways vendors handle press relations and NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements.

If vendors  -- usually very large ones -- have what they deem to be sensitive, valuable information, journalists may be given a form to fill in, where they agree not to publish the information until a specified time.

Some journalists decline but most agree because: (1) they recognise the impossiblity of herding the global press to get aligned publication timings in any other way (2) they value the ongoing relationship with the vendor (read: they're afraid of upsetting them for no good reason).

I probably sign one of these forms every couple of months and have done so for the past 20 years, but I'm not sure they have ever worked well -- and I'm confident they're of less use than ever before. Here's why:

Grey areas. Some PRs send out information by email with an NDA form attached. Others send you invitations to attend meetings under NDA with lots of juicy information in the invitation. So you have the information at your fingertips and never agreed not to publish.

Human error. We're all busy and it's easy to forget/mistake timing related to agreed embargoes, especially where time zones are involved -- and they usually are.

Web publishing. 'I really feel happy with the quality of my CMS' is a phrase rarely uttered in media circles. Content management systems tend to have hair-triggers and fail to sync with the 'real' time. Stories can be kept back for publishing on a site but still be sent automatically and in advance to a franchise or distribution partner. I've seen it happen before and on one occasion it was a story aout a planned IPO. Not good. Not good at all.

Malice aforethought. Some people see a cunning plan on behalf of vendors or journalists who agree NDAs and then ignore them for personal/corporate gain. I'm sure that could be true, although I've never seen any evidence to confirm it. There are two differing views here from Techcrunch and ZDNet UK.

Viral stuff. Once journalists are briefed they talk about what they know and somebody ends up writing a little bit. Someone writes a bit more and somebody else writes a bit more on top. Vendors release bits on blogs or promo videos. At this point, everybody's confused as to what's in the public domain and what is covered by the NDA. And those who refused to sign an NDA, or were never offered the chance, will be very tempted to go ahead and publish thrir thoughts on top of what's out there.

The Google Effect. Once upon a time, breaking the NDA was like opening Pandora's Box but since Google the rewards allocated to first-movers who scoop the story are limited, so busting the embargo is perhaps regarded as a lesser evil than ever before.

So that's why I think the business of NDA is broken. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to fix it.