Death To The Embargo

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PR firms are out of control. Today we are taking a radical step towards fighting the chaos. From this point on we will break every embargo we agree to.

Background:

Tech companies are desperate for press and hammering their PR firms for coverage on blogs and major media sites. That in turn means that PR firms hammer us to get us to write about their clients. Gone are the days of polite pitches and actual relationship building. Today, PR firms email a story to us as many as 20 times, and call every TechCrunch writer on their cell phones repeatedly. If we say we won’t write a story (which is most of the time), things often turn nasty (check out Lois Whitman at HWH PR/New Media for a fine example).

For the most part we’ve dealt with the problem quietly over the last couple of years, other than the occasional lashing out on Twitter. Others, like Wired Magazine’s Editor In Chief Chris Anderson, have been more public with their frustration.

But now a new problem has emerged that we won’t ignore.

A portion of the stories we write are “embargoed” news items. They aren’t stories that we’ve dug up ourselves. Instead, PR firms have pre-briefed us on the news and have asked us to write, if we choose to, no earlier than a set time.

A lot of this news is good stuff that our readers want to know about. And we have the benefit of taking some time during the pre-briefing to think about the story, do research, and write it properly. When embargoes go right, we get to write a thoughtful story which benefits the company and our readers.

But there’s a problem. All this stress on the PR firms put on them by desperate clients means they send out the embargoed news to literally everyone who writes tech news stories. Any blog or major media site, no matter how small or new, gets the email. It didn’t used to be this way, but it’s becoming more and more of a problem. As the economy turns south, PR firms are under increasing pressure to perform and justify their monthly retainers which range from $10,000 to $30,000 or more. In short, they have to spam the tech world to get coverage, or lose their jobs.

One annoying thing for us is when an embargo is broken. That means that a news site goes early with the news despite the fact that they’ve promised not to. The benefits are clear – sites like Google News and TechMeme prioritize them first as having broken the story. Traffic and links flow in to whoever breaks an embargo first.

That means it’s a race to the bottom by new sites, who are increasingly stressed themselves with a competitive marketplace and decreasing advertising sales.

A year ago embargo breaks were rare, once-a-month things. Today, nearly every embargo is broken, sometimes by a few minutes, sometimes by half a day or more.

We can’t continue to operate under these rules.

Our New Policy

The reason this is becoming a larger problem is because there is no downside to breaking embargoes. The PR firm gets upset but they don’t stop working with the offending publication or writer. You get a slap on the wrist, and you break another embargo later that day.

There are a few (very few) exceptions. One is Waggener Edstrom, who handles PR for Microsoft. Their embargoes don’t break because they’d unleash hell on the offender. Another is Google. The few times they’ve had problems they’ve chosen the nuclear option and banned the offender for as much as a year. As you can imagine, Google and Microsoft embargoed news doesn’t break early.

We’ve never broken an embargo at TechCrunch. Not once. Today that ends. From now our new policy is to break every embargo. We’ll happily agree to whatever you ask of us, and then we’ll just do whatever we feel like right after that. We may break an embargo by one minute or three days. We’ll choose at random.

Some firms will stop talking to us (yeah! less email), but we’ll find other ways to get the news. Others, who haven’t read this post because they don’t read TechCrunch, will be unpleasantly surprised. Maybe if we cause enough pain then PR firms will start to take action against those publications who break the rules.

There will be exceptions. We will honor embargoes from trusted companies and PR firms who give us the news exclusively, so we know there won’t be any mistakes. There are also a handful – maybe three – people who we trust enough to continue to work with them on general embargoes (if you are a PR person and wondering if you’re on that list, you’re not). But for the vast majority of news we get in our inboxes, we’re just going to fire it off to our readers ad hoc whenever we please.

This policy stays in effect until I update this post, which won’t be any time soon.

I’ll also be publishing a blacklist on TechCrunch listing every firm, company, publication and individual writer involved whenever an embargo is broken. Of course, given our new policy, I’ll be putting us at the top of that list.

Update: Good discussion on this at Mahalo.

Update 2: The rant continues.

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