Dumb and Dumber. TechCrunch's Embargo Policy and News Embargoes

If you work in the field of marketing or public relations this story will be of interest. I first learned of the story from this San Jose Mercury News article:
Technology journalists have long grumbled about embargoes — the public relations practice of trading news for a promise not to print until a given date and time. Not only is the practice manipulative, but a lot of the news isn't really interesting. In the rare cases when the embargoed item is newsworthy, it's virtually guaranteed to be broken by a blogger who doesn't feel bound by stodgy journalistic conventions like verbal contracts. Michael Arrington, a former lawyer turned publisher of the must-read technology blog TechCrunch was an exception. Arrington said he has never broken a single embargo. "Today that ends," Arrington wrote on a blog post Wednesday in which he unilaterally declared war on the entire PR industry. "From now (on) our new policy is to break every embargo. We'll happily agree to whatever you ask of us, and then we'll do whatever we feel like right after that. We may break an embargo by one minute or three days. We'll choose at random." In an interview, Arrington said his goal is to fix the PR industry. He said he first tried keeping a blacklist of firms that offered embargoes but did nothing when they were broken. But the list soon grew to include a third of all PR firms. "It wasn't a blacklist, it was just a list," Arrington said.
When I first read this story, I had two immediate thoughts:

1. What is a news embargo? I never heard of this PR tactic (probably a good thing).
2. What a dumb debate.

The answers to my first two questions came quickly. At our core, even though our company owns one of the largest "PR" firms in the human resource industry, we are a marketing firm servicing B2B clients in the HR space. We do not operate in a PR vacuum. Hence, we've never even thought of using embargoes - or had a reason to use them.

Now, for thought #2 - what a dumb debate.

I understand where Mr. Arrington is coming from and I respect his integrity in (a) honoring the embargoes all these years and (b) being forthcoming in announcing he will no longer honor embargoes.

But the whole debate is silly. Here is why.
  1. For companies that have something of great news worthiness or whose news is in great demand (Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc.) it probably doesn't matter where the news breaks or how it is released. To quote Henry David Thoreau, "If it’s important enough, it’ll reach you." These companies don't need to ask for embargoes. It can be released on PRweb or some kid's Facebook account and within minutes, it will spread like wildfire. What about PR people who say they need to give a reporter advanced notice to prepare a story that has more details than just a press release post? That's your job - use a social media press release. That's the power of the Internet and Web 2.0. And if the PR people representing these firms want to play the embargo game, they can pick their outlet and it will most likely not be the TechCrunch blog if TechCrunch cannot honor the embargo. They'll just go to a major news channel like CNN which has greater reach anyway.
  2. For smaller unknown companies or companies whose news is not in demand they could care less if an embargo is not honored. They just want the coverage. So the TechCrunch threat is meaningless to them.
The only people who care about being the first to give you the news is the media. Consumers don't care where it comes from. And in the long run, it just does not matter. It may have mattered in the days when you had only CBS, NBC and ABC but with the Internet and Web 2.0 news travels quickly regardless of where it was first introduced. And PR folks have the tools to communicate news in any format they want. Good PR and marketing firms understand this - and don't need to use embargoes.

Now I'm not saying all news embargoes are useless. Sometimes they are necessary like when reporters who accompanied President George Bush on a Thanksgiving visit to Iraq were 'embargoed' from filing until the President left the country. They were told that, in the interests of security, the trip would be canceled if news broke before its conclusion. But using embargoes in B2B technology announcements?

At the end of the day, who was the winner in this debate?


Michael Arrington is getting the last laugh on this. Look at all the media visibility he has earned and as a result, the likely increase in his blog readership. And because he sells ads on his blog, he makes more money.

And what if companies no longer send news to TechCrunch?

Doesn't matter. If it's truly newsworthy, TechCrunch MUST cover the story anyway or risk becoming irrelevant (and losing ad revenue).

But at the end of the day, if you run your PR firm (or blog) with integrity and focus on building relationships and proving useful insights and information, you have nothing to worry about. Just keep doing what you are doing.