Now that the dust has settled over Michael Arrington's announcement that TechCrunch would agree to honor and then break embargoes from PR contacts, it's worth taking another look at the issue from a more objective angle.
Like so many other tactics and concepts that have been perverted and abused, the embargo is rooted in a reasonable and useful practice. Jargon such as "paradigm shift," "world-class" and "best practices"â€"now the fodder of bullshit bingo gamesâ€"started out as perfectly legitimate ideas. As they became memes, however, they were mangled and misused with increasing regularity until they evolved into the lingo we roll our eyes over today.
What happened to the embargo is simple enough to explain, with equal blame on both sides of the equation:
- Bloggers have become a news source, but few of them are schooled in the tools of journalism. Reporters know and care that they'll be blacklisted if they violate an embargo; they know because editors and more senior reporters explain it to them. A lot of bloggers, on the other hand, have no journalism background and are independent, without a senior staff to show them the ropes. They don't know how embargoes work and don't care about the consequences for blowing them off.
- In their zeal to reach out to all those bloggers, lazy PR people have ignored the rules and diluted the embargo's efficacy.
I can't recall ever being asked to honor an embargo during my brief career as a newspaper reporter. Nor can I recall ever requesting one while I was managing corporate communications for the two Fortune 500 companies where I worked. But I've been aware of them my entire career and always viewed them as a practical solution to a genuine need. With that in mind, I searched the various public relations textbooks and references I keep on my shelf. "Embargo" was not to be found in the index of a single one of them. I found that surprising; public relations schools, it seems, no longer teach the concept of the embargo. People joining the ranks of PR practitioners, then, don't bring an academic concept with them to the job. Instead, they learn by watching what others are doing.
What others are doing, by and large, sucks.
The original notion of the embargo was based on a few basics that have fallen by the wayside:
Most of the unsolicited press releases I get by email that come with an embargo (more on this in a minute) don't represent real news (that is, it's not timely or doesn't have a real impact on the people to whom it is being reported).
A good reason
There needs to be a sound reason for an embargo. Most professionals recognize the primary use of an embargo is to give a reporter a head-start on his reporting, particularly when the announcement is complex and both partiesâ€"the organization making the announcement and those reporting on itâ€"will benefit from time to absorb the material, conduct interviews, do research, and produce an accurate story.
Today's practice is for companies to seek embargoes to a bunch of press will accompany an announcement. That may be great for the company, but there's nothing in it for the reporter.
Offered to trusted contacts
I have received at least 50 unsolicited press releases by email, sent by people and agencies with whom I have no relationship, each of which included notice of an embargo. I would ignore these without feeling like I had violated any ethical standards. If I have no relationship with these people and have not agreed to an embargo, I am not obliged to honor it.
A true embargo is requested by a PR counselor of media contacts with whom they have established strong, trusted relationships. When that happens, the journalist knows he's going to get good information on which he'll want to report, while the PR counselor can count on the reporter honoring the agreement. (Note that I said "contacts," plural. An embargo never applies to a single reporter. That would be an exclusive, which is different, even though it often requires the reporter to agree to hold the story until a specified date.)
Here are a couple examples of embargoes that work, contributed by people I trust:
Sharon Bondâ€"I use an embargo very effectively every year for Giving USA Foundation. I have a core group of philanthropy reporters who depend on getting the information on "who gives what to whom" in America every year in advance of our publication date so that they can prepare their stories. Only once in the known history of the publication of Giving USA (it comes out every June), has the embargo been broken, and that was an honest mistake by the reporter. We've been putting out this publication for 50+ years.
Scott Montyâ€"The way I've seen embargoes handled around various auto shows that we participate in at Ford is a little different than the "send & ask" technique I've seen at large. We have lots of information about new productsâ€"including specs, videos and photosâ€"and our journalists want to have time to write about them and post a comprehensive review as soon as they possibly can. I know they appreciate having a head start and I'm not aware of any egregious breach of the embargoes. We create an embargo web site and grant access to it (via passwords) to those who would like to have it. While we have a regular group of writers we automatically include, we also accept requests from those interested in getting access. This way, it's an opt-in system, rather than the email blast and request to hold the information until the appropriate time.
Paula Symonsâ€"An example would be a leading employer in a community closing its doors, resulting in hundreds or thousands of people losing their jobs. An embargo on this announcement would allow reporters to gather background information and interview management to prepare their stories in advance so the news could break shortly after the embargo lifts.
Wendie Owenâ€"I've used embargoes many times when reporters needed an embargoed advance copy of product information (when I was in the private sector), or the embargoed advance copy of the text of a speech (when I was serving in the Carter Administration as Advisor on Communications Policy to the Secretary of Energy).
I feel Michael Arrington's pain. Honoring embargoes has enabled competitors to ignore the embargo and break news first. But Arrington's response reflects a disturbing trend: People who don't like the behavior of PR people and respond by deliberately doing something worse. Chris Anderson did it when he published the email addresses of PR people who had spammed him. Now Arrington has done it by asserting that he will promise to honor an embargo when he has no intention of keeping the promise. In other words, he has publicly stated that you cannot trust his word.
As Wendie Owen put it, "No reputable reporter would break an embargo. That kind of behavior would get him or her kicked off the distribution list the next time. Not honoring embargoes is unethical, unprofessional and unwise, and I'm sure that practice will not spread beyond TechCrunch." (I wonder about Arrington's claim at the very beginning of his post that "PR firms are out of control" when it's bloggers and journalists who are violating the agreements.)
No PR person in his right mind would offer a story to TechCrunch with an embargo attached. Real news with a legitimate reason for an embargo will now go to competitors.
It could be that the TechCrunch staff believes they have become so dominant in their market that they don't need PR people to provide them with news. Anything's possible, but I just laugh when I hear assertions that social media have destroyed mainstream media. (There's plenty of evidence to support the fact that there's still a huge demand for mainstream media.) But if I were a working journalist or a blogger working in the news arena, I sure wouldn't want to be scratched off the distribution lists of multiple news sources.
Ultimately it's just sad all the way aroundâ€"sad that the PR profession has allowed the embargo to become what it has and sad that some bloggers and journalists have chosen to prove their word worthless. I suspect, however, that journalists/bloggers and PR counselors with trusted relationships will continue to use genuine embargoes to achieve what they were designed for. With luck, they'll start teaching embargoes again as part of an academic PR curriculum and the guardians of the profession will begin
Note: In the absence of literature on media embargoes, I queried my community on LinkedIn and got some great answers, which have been incorporated into this post. Hat tip to Sharon Bond, Leo Bottary, Gerard Braud, Michael Driehorst, Lloyd Grosse, Doug Haslam, Sebastien Keil, Michael Miller, Scott Monty, Mike Nicholson, Wendie Owen, David Parmet, Peggy Schoen, Angela Sinickas, and Paula Smith Symons.
a shel of my former self, a blog from organizational communications consultant Shel Holtz, addresses the intersection of technology, business, and communication.