Embargoes: Thanks but no thanks

by Mathew on August 21, 2008 · 19 comments

There’s been a bit of a conversation going on lately — both out in the open, on blogs like Louis Gray’s and Profy and others, as well as behind the scenes on FriendFeed — about the value of embargoes. For anyone who doesn’t know, an embargo is when a PR or marketing company asks a journalist to sit on a press release and not write about it until a certain date. Companies (or their PR firms) ask me for them all the time, and I say no in almost every case. Why? Because I think that embargoes do a lot more for the companies that ask for them than they do for the journalist (or blogger) who agrees to abide by them.

The classic argument in favour of embargoes — as described by Rick Turoczy in a guest post on Centernetworks a while back — is that they “give journalists and bloggers time to research a story” before they write about it. In most cases, to be honest, that is complete crap. In other words, that might be a nice justification for the embargo, but in practice I would argue that it rarely happens. What happens is that everyone who abides by the embargo comes out with a nicely-packaged story that hits all the points from the press release, and they all come out at the same time. How does that really help anyone?

I take that back. It does help someone: it helps the company that is trying to push their new gadget/service, and it helps the firm that is trying to get as much free publicity and marketing juice as possible for their client. If a company has developed a personal relationship with a journalist or blogger, then I could see doing someone a favour by respecting an embargo. But in most cases by agreeing to an embargo, bloggers are just helping to load the tubes with PR bumpf so that the client and the PR firm can get a nice bang for their launch.

It’s the PR equivalent of the “first day pop” in the IPO market. Brokerage firms routinely underprice the shares of a stock they are launching as a new issue, and try to make sure that the offering is “oversubscribed” — in other words, they try to line up lots of institutions who want to get a piece of the stock, so that when the shares go public they get a nice boost. Does that serve either the company or the average shareholder? No. Embargoes are like that. They lead to stories and blog posts that are full of sound and fury, but little real value.

  • http://www.propr.ca thornley

    “What happens is that everyone who abides by the embargo comes out with a nicely-packaged story that hits all the points from the press release, and they all come out at the same time. How does that really help anyone?”

    Gee Mathew, you have a pretty cynical view of reporters. I hope they're not so lazy as to simply spew the bumpf from a press release.

    Interesting coincidence: Last night, a marketing VP told me about the next release of his WebApp, scheduled for early September. About half way through, he realized he'd told me things he hadn't started out to tell me and he asked me to observe an embargo. And I will. Because I have no desire to hurt a person for a simple indiscretion.

    But you can be sure that I will use the time between now and the next release to look at his current offering and test it against the next set of improvements. And I won't spew the release text (I don't event think I'll look at it.) I'll publish my own take.

    And I'm not even a journalist. I'm just a blogging exec who has an enthusiasm for social media and community building.

    In my experience, the vast majority of reporters who have information on embargo do no less than I intend to do. They research. They look at competitors. They find sources who can give them a unique angle or perspective on the story. And then they publish something that's worth reading.

    I think you do that, don't you?

  • http://www.wordyard.com Scott Rosenberg

    I find it amusing that this conversation is happening in 2008. It's like the professional blogosphere must gradually recapitulate every ethical quandary from the days of the old trade press.

    I suppose there's a parallel to respecting pub dates for books, opening dates for movies, etc. But mostly, the whole embargo concept is, as you say, all about convenience for first the company first, and the publication at a distant second. The reader comes last.

    At Salon, we never agreed to embargoes. But then again we thought the Web's advent meant such cozy backscratching would become a thing of the past anyway. Whoops.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Yes, I do that Joe, and I'm glad you do too. My point — which I think
    you're missing — is that I (and lots of other reporters) do all of
    that without having to agree to embargoes. Maybe our stories or posts
    don't all come out at the exact same moment as everyone else's, but I
    don't think that matters as much as some other people seem to.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks for the comment, Scott. I must admit that I hoped the Web and
    blogs would mean the end of such things as well, but that doesn't seem
    to be the case, unfortunately.

  • http://www.propr.ca thornley

    Mathew, I'm not missing your point. I just think it's irrelevant. If people are going to do their jobs (which I think they will), it's actually a good thing if people can see a variety of perspectives about an announcement when it happens. This doesn't stop people from doing a second take. But interest is highest and most people go looking for information when they first hear of the announcement. Embargoes allow a broader group of reporters/commentators/critics/peoplelikeme to catch the news and offer a perspective when people are looking for it.

  • csmillie

    I think embargoes and blogging are even more value now though than in trade publications in the past. SEO, sites like Techmeme and Digg have had a big impact on the desire for an embargo and controlled timing for a PR. The desire to control PR is going to increase, either through embargo's or just time released communication.

    While I agree that most of the benefit is with the vendor, I do think there is some benefit to the blogger too. They get to be included with the all the other blogs who will benefit from covering a top story or meme of the moment.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Fair enough — but nothing you've said requires that there be an embargo, except the need to generate a lot of hype over a specific date.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's the worst part about it, Colin — it used to be that embargoes meant there were stories in a couple of papers or trade magazines. Now, dozens of blogs and news sites all have the same story, at the same time, about the same pumped-up launch or gadget.

  • http://www.profy.com/ Svetlana Gladkova

    Mathew, I'm afraid I will disagree with you here simply because to me an embargo actually means that I am offered some time for research and while a well-organized launch date will be mostly beneficial to the company or product reviewed, I still have my value of the extra time. Besides, I think my readers will only benefit if I only publish the story on time when they can go and see what I'm talking about for themselves – and for their sake I can respect what the company is asking me to do, at the same time respecting the best interests of my readers.

  • http://ryantate.com Ryan

    Perhaps if the trade/traditional press had _settled_ these issues, or done so properly, a recapitulation would not be neccesary. But you'll still see the WSJ, Wapo and AP doing embargoes for example

    http://gawker.com/5016656/wsj-short-on-copy-edi
    http://www.alleyinsider.com/2008/6/fcc_signs_of

  • ryantate

    The practice is, at heart, a gimmick, to add hype to “news” the press might otherwise ignore or underplay. Your IPO comparison is apt.

    I have some inside information on why PR people do this, but I won't tell you unless you promise to keep it under your hat for a week.

    (*Cough*)

  • http://ryantate.com Ryan

    Perhaps if the trade/traditional press had _settled_ these issues, or done so properly, a recapitulation would not be neccesary. But you'll still see the WSJ, Wapo and AP doing embargoes for example

    http://gawker.com/5016656/wsj-short-on-copy-edi
    http://www.alleyinsider.com/2008/6/fcc_signs_of

  • http://ryantate.com ryantate

    The practice is, at heart, a gimmick, to add hype to “news” the press might otherwise ignore or underplay. Your IPO comparison is apt.

    I have some inside information on why PR people do this, but I won't tell you unless you promise to keep it under your hat for a week.

    (*Cough*)

  • Pingback: WinExtra - Self Imposed Embargoes The Next Blogger Trick?

  • Pingback: Why and How Embargoes Work in Tech Blogging | GroupHelp.NET

  • Pingback: On relationship building for startups | CloudAve

  • Pingback: News Embargoed or when you need to get public relations right — TechWag

  • Pingback: Why and How Embargoes Work in Tech Blogging | Family Learning Center

  • Pingback: Why and How Embargoes Work in Tech Blogging | Nab-Excerpt

Older post:

Newer post: