The News Embargo Is Dead. TechCrunch Killed It. Let’s Move On.

5/6/11Follow @wroush

My passion is for storytelling, and the stories that fascinate me most are about new technologies, how they’re brought into being, and how they’re changing everyday life. But there’s a wrinkle that’s been distracting me from doing my best work and getting it out to the readers who will appreciate it most. It’s called the news embargo. It’s a failed institution, yet some players in the news ecosystem refuse to let it go, causing journalists like myself untold grief. Well, I’ve had enough.

The decline and fall of the embargo system is, admittedly, an inside-the-sausage-factory issue. It’s the sort of thing readers of news shouldn’t have to think about. But it affects the way consumers learn about important technology news stories, which makes it relevant to every entrepreneur and startup. So allow me to dwell for a moment on why the embargo is dead, why it’s time for companies and the public relations community to face up to that fact, and what we might put in its place.

An embargo is a gentlemen’s agreement between a newsmaker and a news organization to keep a story secret until a specific date and time. One of the main purposes of such agreements is to give every reporter who agrees to an embargo an equal amount of time to research and write a well-informed story before the publication date. Of course, the newsmaker benefits too; when a volley of press stories appear all at once, it heightens the sense that the news must be important. (Whether this is always true is a different matter.)

Embargoes emerged as a common practice in an era when there were far fewer major media outlets, meaning it was much easier to keep secrets. But in a 24/7, Internet-driven media world where anyone can be a publisher and PR professionals are sharing embargoed news more and more widely, there’s a growing epidemic of accidental and deliberate embargo-breaking. In the world of infotech coverage, they get broken 10 to 25 percent of the time, by my personal count. When an embargo falls, every organization that agreed to the embargo gets burned. Except the one that broke it; they get a scoop, and more and more often, there’s no punishment attached.

Frustration over that situation has led a few organizations to attack the system. In 2008, notably, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington declared “Death to the Embargo” and said that henceforth his publication would work to undermine the system by agreeing to embargoes, then breaking them at random. They’ve done this with gusto, and Arrington’s campaign has worked. Embargo promises, at least in the business and technology space I cover, are now tissue-thin. If TechCrunch—now a division of AOL—doesn’t break the embargo on a given story, someone else emboldened by its example often will.

Yet technology companies and their public relations firms cling to the practice. Every day I get half a dozen or more offers of embargoed stories. And I have a new standard response for these offers: No thank you.

Let me say that again. I will no longer agree to embargoes. If you are a tech company or a PR person and you’re looking to share a story under embargo, don’t even bother to contact me before the embargo time. Just send me your announcement once it’s public. I’m not saying that I will never again cover a story that was originally shared with other reporters under embargo. I’m just saying that I’m not going to do a bunch of work in advance of an embargo only to get burned at the last minute by … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.jenniferjones.com jennifer jones

    Bravo, Wade! I totally agree. Thank you for making the time to put your thoughts together in such a great post. I will share to all my friends and clients.

  • http://www.nas.nasa.gov Jill Dunbar

    Bravo!

  • http://itsfreshground.com Chuck Tanowitz

    I had this argument with my peers quite often, they wanted to embargo something and I argued against it. Luckily I haven’t had to deal with it much at Fresh Ground, since I never bring up the word “embargo” with clients. Frankly, I think part of the problem is in the word itself. It’s loaded and carries a particular weight.

    For some reporters the advance knowledge works, since they want to get their stories written, through editorial approval and timed to go live at a particular moment.

    My advice to clients has been to announce something when they have actual NEWS. By that I mean, if your’e announcing a new version of your web product, then go ahead and brief reporters ahead of time, but let those reporters know that it won’t be live until a particular date. It’s not an embargo, but there really isn’t a reason to write about something that doesn’t exist. When it exists, you have a story. Pretty simple. Sure, some articles may come out ahead of time, but they’ll probably be written along with the idea that “we got a sneak peak at what’s coming.” My advice is often to complete the product, get it ready and then hold off on making it live it for a few days or a week so we can pitch reporters.

    Of course, this doesn’t always work. One client insisted that the product had to go live the MOMENT it was done. She said that her investors needed to see it immediately live. So we went ahead and started pitching it based on her timeline. Only, she ran into snags, so a few places covered it, but the product didn’t go live for a few days after the announcement date. Point being, sometimes clients are so wrapped up in their own timeline that they fail to see the external picture: the world isn’t waiting for their product the way they want the next new iPhone or iPad. Their timeline is completely their own.

  • http://bostondave.net David

    It’s an unfortunate development but really the reality of day. There are just simply too many instances of everything in the soup from companies, marketing people, PR agencies, social media experts, news sites and blogs to keep it working fully anymore. The real culprit are the companies, as you mention, that let sites get away with breaking it. No penalty for breaking a rule = no rule.

    It still think there is a time and a place for it but offering an embargo and to who is just one of the decisions that you have to make in your plans.

    On another note…who really cares about TC anymore anyway? ;-)

  • http://marshallk.com Marshall Kirkpatrick

    I disagree. I love me a good embargo and advise startups to use them whenever possible. The only question that remains is “well how do I get techcrunch coverage then?” And I guess XConomy now, though your coverage tends to be different from my part of the web world. I tell people not to worry about it, TechCrunch coverage isn’t worth losing sleep over anyway. There are plenty of other sites willing to be reasonable and take a good hard look at technology before it launches. That way we all compete on quality of journalism, not harried racing to cover something early in the news cycle, but without preparation. There are other times to do that

  • http://www.ignitepr.com Carmen Hughes

    hi Wade,
    with all due respect, embargoes still work so we are not moving away from that process. Case in point? We just issued an announcement for a client that was embargo based and secured dozens of interviews and as of last count over 100 really solid articles with top news and blog outlets. We respect publications that don’t honor embargoes but we just go to them less with our news. Typically, we’ll ask our client, if they want to give their news exclusively to outlet X or go to the others that are willing to honor embargoes and inevitably clients 9 out of 10 times don’t want to give the news just to one outlet. Sometimes we do press them to do an exclusive, say with TechCrunch, but like it or not, the embargo is still alive and kicking. I hope you don’t mind my candor here.

  • Lisa Dilg

    Its a nice thought isn’t it. Except for the fact that once one reporter covers news – other reporters will say its “old” news. I have had reporters send me links to other outlet’s stories and say – they covered it this morning, so I am not going to, you should have come to me first.

    Does anyone have a solution to that? You blame PR and tech companies when its really reporters’ egos that are often the problem.

    And you blame PR for not punishing the outlet that broke the embargo – exactly how is a PR firm supposed to do that? By not sending them news? That punishes the client, not the outlet who will just move on to something else. It would be nice for people to keep their word – but I guess that means nothing to anyone anymore.

  • Kelly

    The question is…will you agree to them and then break them? A lot of reporters don’t take them, and that’s fine. But, TechCrunch crosses a line when they agree and don’t honor. I understand that they said they would do it, and by now, i hope all PR people know it (even new ones). but, maybe not. What do we PR people have without the truth? i dont’ usually recommend an embargo strategy, but once and a while, it does work. I thank you for covering the Steve Hoover under embargo, because, frankly, for that one, we didn’t want to have 100 interviews and limited it only to you and eweek. If you’re not Apple, though, it is tough to get attention on a regular basis, and embargo strategies are a good tool for the toolbox.

  • http://blog.omniar.com Scott Rafer

    Hi Wade,

    I’m not with you. The embargocide at TC is writer-by-writer, not a blogwide thing.

  • http://www.pr-vantage.com Rob Adler

    From the PR side, embargos fall into the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.” We are trying to meet the needs of journalists that want to publish the story when the news breaks and often are unwilling to cover something after the press release hits the wire.

    One thing people are missing is the difference between an embargo and an exclusive. The broken embargo issue because there are multiple reporters and the goal is not to favor one over another. Exclusives give one editor the advance notice. The issue here is the reporters who did not get advance notice are not happy. FYI. Tech Crunch’s policy does not apply to exclusives.

    The problem on the PR side is keeping reporters with different and legitimate wants/needs satisfied. I won’t do embargoes with more than 2 or 3 reporters (usually non-competitive) because they are too difficult to manage.

    Personally, I won’t use an embargo as a tool to pump up a story’s importance. The headaches and the risk of damage to long term relationships are not worth it.

  • Jeff Fox

    Thanks Wade for providing a forum for this discussion. I use embargoes strictly as a means of assuring reporters that the playing field is level in terms of timing. Perhaps we’d all be better served by providing reporters with advance info, telling them when the news will officially be made public and respectfully asking them to time their coverage accordingly. Some would honor it, some wouldn’t, and some coverage would be lost. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing were it not for clients’ insistence that they aren’t getting their money’s worth from PR unless they get a lot of coverage. Meanwhile a thoughtful, deep dive feature piece like the ones that Wade writes are far more valuable that a bunch of small news blurbs that all parrot the press release.

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  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Great comments, everyone, thanks so much for engaging.

    @Chuck–I totally agree. Make sure your product is really ready before you ask a bunch of reporters to look at it. Maybe even consider demo-ing it with them one on one so you can make sure they get it, and answer their questions.

    @David–Exactly. An embargo has no teeth if there are no consequences for breaking it.

    @Marshall–We can agree to disagree, but I share your sentiments about competing on quality. I’m saying, let’s let that quality bloom on its own timeline, and not on an embargo schedule driven by a source’s misguided notions about what constitutes quality.

    @Carmen–I’m not under the illusion that with this piece, I can put the final nail in the embargo’s coffin. I know many PR professionals will continue to use them. For me, on balance, they’re not worth the trouble, and I think if you got enough reporters and PR people together in a room and shut the door, they’d vote to find some other system.

    @Lisa–I guess I do a very different kind of journalism from the reporters you’re talking about. I don’t win loyal readers through scoops, but through thoughtful analysis. I do think the reporters who are hung up on timeliness could get most of their needs met through a system of simultaneous press releases or blog announcements, with no embargoes or pre-briefs.

    @Kelly–I will definitely not agree to embargoes and then break them. I’m not pulling a TechCrunch here. I’m just opting out of the system.

    @Scott Rafer–I think that’s what TC writers tell people, but my experience is different. I can’t tell you how many times PR people have assured me that they’re “working with one of the TC writers who honors embargoes,” and then voila, TC breaks the embargo.

    @Rob Adler–I know public relations professionals are in a bind, mediating between their clients’ needs and journalists’. I’m sure it’s often a thankless task–thanks for keeping at it! By the way, I love exclusives. What journalist doesn’t.

  • Mel Webster

    Good post Wade and good arguments for not participating in embargoed stories anymore. I continue to have good luck with embargoes and likely will continue to use them for major news. I have been willing to live without Techcrunch coverage, but they have actually covered major news even though it had been given in advance, under emabrgo to a number of other outlets and not to them. I do agree that if someone breaks an embargo agreement, their must be retribution. However, as Lisa Dilg notes, this ends up actually punishhing the client. It also is critical that if someone is distributing news on an embargoed basis, the rules have to be clearly spelled out so everyone is on the same page.

    With the 24/7, always on news cycle, embargoes have become much more difficult to enforce. That said, someone keeping their word does not change, regardless of social media, the web, etc. If you make an agreement you need to stick to that agreement. I am still searching for a solution to get the news out and to give people time to do in-depth reporting on a story.

  • http://www.ignitepr.com Carmen Hughes

    hi Wade,
    as a follow up, there have been a handful of instances where our agreed upon embargoes were broken. A lot of work goes into the handling of news both from the client’s (vendor) perspective as well as the agency handling the news. I can also fully appreciate all of the work that reporters who have agreed to an embargo and put a lot of work, time and energy into developing their piece only to have someone jump the embargo. I huge unwanted screwup that no party wanted. We may blacklist these reporters or sites internally, after we’ve looked into what happened and why. Sometimes they are bonafide mistakes but we’re also on notice to see if it happens again so that we will know to make corrections in the future about whether or not to work with the reporter/blogger/news venue. Our clients’ news is important, and a lot of time, money and effort go into this process, so we can ill afford to be with working with somebody that reverses on their agreement to an embargo. That helps us minimize this imperfect process. TechCrunch’s policy is very clear. I think they have done a good job laying out how they want to be approached, and yes, that generally is to give them the exclusive. They do make exceptions based on the existing relationship between the company/blog or blogger/PR person. We honor and respect WSJ and TC and fully understand how to work with their policies so that broken embargoes are a non-issue. Lastly, i agree with other commenting that too many reporters hold the position that once the news is out there it is DOA, so a tough conundrum to deal with if PR people were to take the recommended route of just pushing it out.

  • http://www.sterlingpr.com Devin Davis

    You’ve made some interesting and persuasive points here (as have many of your commenters). While I don’t necessarily agree with everything you said (of course I don’t – I’m a PR guy :)) I do think you’ve rightly pointed out a few interesting things at play here.

    In particular, I agree that my clients who get the best coverage tend to receive it:

    - Not immediately after their embargoed news goes live but a day or so after
    - Often when it’s not related to a specific product, customer, etc. announcement at all

    This doesn’t mean there is no place for the embargo, I think it just means that the way “breaking” news is being reported is changing. That’s partially because, as you alluded to, the many outlets out there.

    In any event, thanks for the thought provoking piece.

    Nice work.

  • http://www.pr-vantage.com Ilene Adler

    Wade, kudos on a well-reasoned article. We will be sharing it with the team– and with clients. Ah– there’s the challenge!

  • http://www.techcrunch.com Michael Arrington

    There’s a serious misunderstanding of how we handle this stuff, both in the post (somewhat) and in the comments (a lot). That’s good from my perspective, because it tends to keep PR people we don’t know from bugging us out of fear that we’ll do something crazy. But the PR people we know understand how we work. So do the bloggers, but it’s in their best interest to keep the myth alive.

    Here’s a fun fact – we’ve never actually broken an embargo. Oh yes we pass on a lot of news, but mostly because the PR firm insists on including the worst embargo-breakers. Marshall, above, knows that.

    There are lots of times that firms tell us we can go early, and we do. What isn’t so great is when those firms tell our competitors, and sometimes even their clients, that we then broke the embargo. As soon as we see PR people speaking out of both sides of their mouths, that’s when we ask them to never contact us again.

    There are lots of great PR people out there. But there are enough really atrocious ones that they ruin it for everyone, and poison our community.

  • http://fortune.com/apple20 Philip Elmer-DeWitt

    The science and medical journals I worked with when I was TIME’s science editor (Science, Nature, JAMA, NEJM, etc.) sent all their news releases to reporters under embargo so that we’d had enough time to get up to speed on what was usually pretty complicated stuff. They enforced the embargoes by blacklisting for the next 12 months any publication that broke them. It’s a system, I believe, that serves both the reporters and their readers, and it works pretty well.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Michael Arrington — What an extraordinary claim! If I understand you correctly, you aren’t disputing that there have been many cases in which TechCrunch published stories before the embargo time. (Which you can hardly deny; I’ve been on the receiving end of far too many of these unpleasant 5:00 a.m. surprises.) You are saying that you weren’t technically breaking the embargo in these cases—because you were given an *earlier* embargo.

    That would be shocking and outrageous, if it were true. An “embargo” that is not uniformly applied to every news outlet participating in the agreement is not an embargo, it’s a lie and a conspiracy. If I were ever to find out that a PR firm had offered different embargo terms to Xconomy and TechCrunch, I’d stop working with them.

    But I can hardly believe that it’s true—I’ve never met a PR person that duplicitous, as far as I know.

    PR folks: Please weigh in on this. I’d like to know whether you think Michael’s comment reflects your actual practices.

    @Philip: An honor to hear from you, sir. My first journalism job was at Science, where I got my first indoctrination into the embargo system. I think embargoes still work pretty well in the scientific and medical publishing fields, where the content is even more complicated, the channels of distribution are less numerous and better controlled, and the main newsmakers (Science, Nature, JAMA, NEJM, Cell, etc.) are not afraid to blacklist publications that break embargoes.

  • http://danweinreb.org Daniel L Weinreb

    In all the discussion of the way embargos work, to me Wade’s most important point is that (at least for Xconomy) “scoops” are not what matters most. I look to Xconomy for depth and thoughtful analysis.

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  • Lisa Dilg

    I have never known TechCrunch, despite their stated “policy” to have ever actually broken an embargo. I have heard others say they have given TC a different embargo time than other publications, but we never have for them or any publication. That seems to go against the whole reason for the embargo. Its either an exclusive or its not.

  • http://searchreviews.com Ankesh Kumar

    Maybe this is a naive question, if I submit a story without an embargo to a journalist how does that give them enough time to research and write the story?

    Isn’t part of of the process to give the journalist a heads up?

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Well, at least one person, Lisa Dilg from PerkettPR in Boston, has now weighed in here to verify Michael Arrington’s assertion that PR firms do sometimes give TechCrunch a different embargo time from other publications. So, Michael — it appears that I owe you an apology for assuming that every time TechCrunch came out with stories before the embargo time, your writers were breaking the embargo. (Although I’m not sure why anyone would have assumed otherwise, given that you were so clear in your 2008 column that TC’s policy going forward would be to break embargoes at random.)

    If the practice that Michael and Lisa are talking about is widespread—heck, even if it’s rare—it just gives me one more reason to opt out of the whole rotten system. As Lisa says, “either it’s an exclusive or it’s not.” The corollary being, either it’s an embargo or it’s not.

    @Ankesh: Yes, part of the original point of embargoes was to give journalists time to research and write a story, in cases where the source wanted to control the timing of the coverage and where many news outlets would likely want to report the news. Not every story merits this treatment — in fact I’m arguing that in tech news embargoes cause more mischief than they’re worth. If you simply announce a story on your blog, or in an e-mail press release, without any secret pre-briefings, that’s like the starting gun: it gives all reports an equal shot at reporting the story, without any of the subterfuge that the whole embargo system seems to encourage.

  • Lisa Dilg

    Well – I hardly think my statement serves as proof of anything. I said that I have heard of the practice from others in the industry. I think its not a good practice, but its possible its occuring. I AM stating though, that to my knowledge, TechCrunch has never broken any embargo they have actually agreed to.

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  • http://www.harriscom.com Anita Harris

    As a journalist-turned- PR pro (that stands for “professional”–as opposed to other interpretations) I like embargoes for reasons I go into in my blog…http://harriscomblog.com/2011/05/11/is-the-news-embargo-dead-not-so-fast/ . But might also mention that a Washington Post editor so wanted to run a embargoed dentistry story on his watch that he asked if I’d mind moving up the embargo. I told everyone who’d received the embargoed release that a major outlet had made the request and asked if they’d mind. Everyone was fine with it–especially those who asked which publication had made the request. They all ran the story–which went all over the world.

  • Kathy Madison

    Very interesting post and great discussion. Provocative to say “kill the embargo,” but don’t you think it comes down to the specific situation and the relationship between media and PR? For complex stories, as some here have noted, reporters just need the time. And Wade, as you say in the “24/7, Internet-driven media world where anyone can be a publisher” an embargo can be quite helpful. No one wants an inaccurate story “going viral.”

  • http://www.martinlevypr.com Martin Levy

    Embargoes absolutely work all the time, but offering multiple embargo times is disrespectful to journalists and completely unethical. Instead call it an exclusive which is the ONLY time one outlet should get the heads-up skinny over everyone else

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