August 20, 2008

Why the Embargo Process Is Broken and Why We Still Need It

In the world of public relations, press management and blogging, an embargo sets a date and time by which a story can be written. Often, the embargo date and time coincides with a press release from the company, a Web site refresh, or the product's availability. Assuming all goes well, an embargo restricts all outlets from publishing a story until all is ready, and assuming multiple parties have been briefed, you can expect a waterfall of stories and press coverage to flow in a short period of time.

But, as you know, any time humans are involved, things can go awry, especially, as you see often in the blogosphere, you have a large number of media outlets that cover similar spaces, and a scarcity of topics. The resulting clamor to be heard amongst the noise, when so many different people are writing very similar stories, makes for an environment where the slightest bit of mistrust can turn into a simmering feud, or outright frustrating and finger-pointing, be it at a competitive blog, or the people behind the service being launched. Add in to the mix a rising number of inexperienced writers, prone to mistakes, with high levels of visibility, and this can happen with some regularity.

To start, why would a company ask for an embargo?
    1. To be sure a product would not be pre-announced before it was ready.
    2. To prepare and have enough time to brief all interested parties.
    3. To ensure no favoritism was shown to any media outlet.
Why would media/press/bloggers agree to an embargo?
    1. If they wouldn't agree, the company might not give them the story.
    2. Because an embargo often comes with news ahead of time, allowing time for writing.
    3. The service might have given them an interesting non-standard angle.
At an enterprise company, a media and analyst tour typically consists of a series of face to face meetings, plus conference calls, with an agreed upon date for a press release that coincides with the product's launch. Reporters often are looking for customer references and analyst references to validate the company's claims or add a wrinkle to the story.

For more bare-bones operations, including startups focused in the Web space, face to face meetings are less necessary. Sometimes, a series of e-mails, with potential for a phone call, is all that's needed. That's why you, on most blogs, rarely see quotes from a company's executives or customers, even if they had an extensive beta. Most bloggers, even if they have tested a product themselves, are echoing a press release or e-mail introduction from the service's founder. Again, a date is usually referenced in the e-mail to "go live".

Sounds good. Right? So why do these nicely laid plans fall apart?

On the company side:
    1. Sometimes an embargo is for "everybody except one or two publications", who are allowed to break it.
    2. Sometimes the Web site or company blog can go live before the embargo, in effect, scooping themselves.
    3. Sometimes a story isn't all that much of a secret, and things leak to the point there's no reason for an embargo.
On the media/blog side:
    1. Going first is seen as being "special", even if it's a matter of minutes.
    2. Being first can make the originating blog get more attention and linkage, or prominence on sites like Techmeme.
    3. Some blog management systems aren't fool-proof, enabling stories to go "before their time".

Clearly, you have some juxtaposed issues. The company launching an announcement would benefit from being covered by the most publications as possible, seen by the highest number of people. This is augmented by a need to be seen by publications with a high level of prestige. (Think Wall Street Journal,, eWeek, TechCrunch, etc.) But there's something of a magnetic pull on press or blogs to go early, whether that's at midnight on the day of launch, or by posting five minutes before an embargo is lifted, and simply moving the timestamp, as has been known to happen. Blogs and press publications get a lot of visibility through gaining exclusives, and even if the same announcement has been sent to a wide audience, to hit the "post" button a little early, getting the word out first makes you appear more "in the know".

Whether intentional or not, blogs are rewarded for breaking embargoes, even if it hurts the launching service. And there's rarely any level of repercussion, as competing blogs in the know of the embargo are not naming names.

Of late, I've seen a healthy dose of complaining by some bloggers that other blogs have willingly or unwillingly violated an agreed-upon embargo. Yet, interestingly, it's a rare person who will name the offending party, even after their activity has clearly irked them.

See for instance:
    Svetlana Gladkova of Profy:
    "Very-very angry. Is it impossible to run a blog without breaking embargoes these days???"
    08:23 PM August 18, 2008

    Allen Stern of CenterNetworks:

    "wtf is up with the broken embargoes this past week - 3 today, 5 in the last week - im feeling like busting out a video tonight"
    06:32 PM August 18, 2008

    Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb:
    "PR just called to say that mainstream media guy broke embargo, lol. you can't trust those mainstream media types with embargoes!"
    02:18 PM August 15, 2008
Notice how even though they claim frustration and anger, nobody says who the offending parties are...

Embargoes serve a real purpose for the company making the announcement. They are there to build time to polish the product, to enable true beta testing, to set up press activity with multiple targets, and to get one's message distributed. Embargoes serve a purpose for the blogging community, for those who choose to follow them, to help guide an editorial calendar, or to be sure you're also talking about a story on the day of its debut. And while some people might wish they disappear, it's not going to happen, so long as companies look to synchronize their internal and external activity.

As we see a rise in the total number of bloggers writing on the same topics, the issue of some sites trying to get out a step ahead of others isn't going to go away. Those that play by the rules and follow the agreed-upon embargoes, are on occasion, going to get burned. But what doesn't help the situation is that nobody is making a list and checking it twice. Why complain if nobody is going to name names? If there are one, two, three or ten blogs that regularly break an embargo, and it's clear there is a pattern, it should be visible, and these sites should be avoided by companies like the plague.

I believe in and honor embargoes. I also love exclusives, and think that there is more than one way to launch a product. But this practice is tried and true, so long as we have more transparency. What disincentive is there for bloggers who break embargoes if nobody steps up?