Going Too Far: The ‘TechCrunch Embargo’ And Other Myths

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Antti Vilpponen, co-founder and CEO of ArcticStartup, a competitor to TechCrunch Europe when it comes to coverage of – surprise – tech startups from the Arctic region, wrote a post yesterday about the way we – supposedly – handle embargoes around here.

We don’t always respond to criticism, especially not from competitors, but I figured this presents us with a wonderful opportunity to clarify some things.

Vilpponen asserts that we sometimes go too far in how we treat startups by not just telling them we want to have stories exclusively but by somehow determining if and when they get to talk to other journalists and bloggers after we run our post. When startups don’t abide to our demands, that jeopardizes their chances for future coverage. Or as Vilpponen calls it, we blackmail startups.

I’ll say it right off the bat: that’s bullshit. The notion that we ‘treat startups’ one way or another is in itself a very strange way to describe how we work. Regardless of what you think of TechCrunch, you should realize that we’re not at all that difficult to work with (most of the time). We didn’t get to where we are today by screwing over the very people we champion every day. We’re just really, really good at what we do, and once you get to that point there’s always going to be someone that wishes things were different. In our case, multiple someones. High trees catch a lot of wind, etcetera.

It makes absolutely no sense for us to alienate startup founders and to prematurely blow up relationships and suspend all future coverage of any company based on the way they choose to work with us and other media. It would be a lot like biting the hand that feeds us.

Do we break embargoes? Sometimes. Do we break embargoes even after agreeing to them? Sometimes (but very rarely). Do we agree to embargoes and then respect them? Sometimes. Do we refuse to cover some startups when they don’t want to give a story to us exclusively? Sometimes. Do we agree to cover a startup even when we know other media were briefed? Sometimes. Do we turn away some startups and then cover them even more vigorously after we ‘lose’ the story? Sometimes.

Basically, it all depends. If you’re an entrepreneur and you think you have a good story for us, why not just ask us what we think, and we’ll find a way to work together if we agree that it’s something we think our readers will want to know about. We will be much more accommodating to you than to the PR agency you employ, whether they like it or not. We talk your talk better than they ever could.

If you’re a regular reader, you will remember that Michael Arrington, our founder and once fearless leader, killed the embargo almost three years ago. Go read his post and tell me if this looked like a clear policy to you. It wasn’t (spoiler alert: “we’ll break every embargo, but there will be exceptions”). It was more like a big middle finger to the rotten industry called PR, and some of their methods.

Now read that post again. Try and find any mentions of ‘startups’, ‘founders’ or ‘entrepreneurs’. You won’t find any, simply because it wasn’t about them. We have a lot of respect for startups, especially compared to the majority of PR people out there, so we go out of our way to accommodate them.

Here’s what really happens. Most of the news we break here comes straight from sources we know, or originates from readers who give us tips, anonymously or otherwise (more of that, please). Oftentimes, we’ll break a story exclusively because a startup founder explicitly offers it to us that way. If the story is good enough, we’ll accept the offer. We’re not fools, after all.

We’ll ask startups if we can cover their news exclusively, because, well, that guarantees that we break the story and that’s what we’re all about. Calling that bullying or blackmailing is either a bad case of sour grapes or a regrettable misunderstanding of how this world works.

If startup founders don’t agree to an exclusive, we’ll determine whether we want to still cover or pass up on it. In fact, that’s a big – and possibly the hardest – part of our job.

Sometimes, we’ll turn away startups when we know that other media will be covering them, especially if they’ve briefed publications who also have a record of breaking embargoes (if you thought we were the only ones, think again). As a rule, we do not tell entrepreneurs that this means that they’ll never get any coverage from us in the future. Again, we’re not fools.

TechCrunch is a group of individual bloggers, and we all have our preferred way of working, our quirks, our specialties, our nuisances and our views on how we should cater to our audience.

One common trait: a passion for breaking news about the industry we love so dearly.

So, is there such a thing as a ‘TechCrunch embargo’? Have we ever dictated to an entrepreneur if and when he or she can go talk to other media? I certainly haven’t in my three years at TechCrunch, and I seriously don’t think anyone who works here would ever resort to such tactics. I agree with Vilpponen that this would be harmful to the startup ecosystem, and, again, we go out of our way to make sure we build solid relationships with anyone operating in this space. Our one goal is to keep breaking news and scooping competitors at every chance we get, but never at the cost of hurting the community of entrepreneurs we’ve worked so hard to raise awareness for over the years.

The simple truth is that we’ve long found ourselves in a position where we wouldn’t have to ‘bully’ or ‘blackmail’ entrepreneurs at all even if we wanted to, FUD spewing competitors be damned.

Startups have absolutely nothing to fear, except maybe our transparency and honesty.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user burstingwithcolor)