TechCrunch Kills The Embargo, But PR Holds the Smoking Gun

Disclosure, I am a contributor to TechCrunch and I have had my fair share of embargoes broken by various reporters and bloggers over the years. In some cases, we trusted the wrong people.


Credit

In what is sure to come as an absolute surprise to the tech PR industry, TechCrunch proclaimed that it will no longer honor embargoes, unless they’re granted exclusivity. The move was triggered by a growing pattern of underhanded and also irresponsible behavior in the backchannels of PR and blogger relations.

We are all guilty.

The problems are two-fold:

a) Unethical or opportunistic bloggers or reporters looking for an edge will break a story ahead of the agreed-upon embargo, even if only by one minute, in order to appear as if they got the scoop.

b) PR, continuing to use a broadcast methodology to pitch and place news, freely and foolishly wield embargoes as if they’re simply “scheduled” times for a press release to cross a wire.

According to Michael Arrington, “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. 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. There will be exceptions. We will honor embargoes from trusted companies and PR firms who give us the news exclusively.”

In the comments section of the TechCrunch post, Richard MacManus, Editor-In-Chief of another popular tech blog, ReadWriteWeb, commented on a particular portion of the new policy, which sparked an open dialogue between MacManus and Arrington.

MacManus, There will be exceptions. We will honor embargoes from trusted companies and PR firms who give us the news exclusively. Nice.”

Arrington, “Actually Richard, you guys (ReadWriteWeb) and others like GigaOm are the good guys. I have no[t] problem working with you.”

MacManus, “And ditto, I have no problem working with you or other blogs. But seriously I don’t think asking PR firms and startups to give you exclusives is the way to go. That’s asking them to choose which blog they want to get on, and of course they will opt for the biggest one. It’s unfair to put that choice onto PR firms and startups too. It basically means that startups probably won’t be covered by other top blogs if they give an exclusive to someone else. Maybe that’s something they’re ok with, but I think it’s unnecessary as all the best blogs have a unique take on the good stories. So I take your point that breaking embargoes is ruining it for everyone, but exclusives isn’t the answer imho.”

At this point, arguing over whether the response and the new policy is right or wrong, is moot and useless when compared to the potentially grim future facing PR.

Is the act of breaking embargoes as retaliation to deserving or undeserving companies the answer?

No.

But the resolution with TechCrunch and other bloggers and media in every industry rests among those who practice PR, whether they’re PR or marketing professionals or the founders of companies who choose to employ DIY PR.

TechCrunch’s response is not isolated, nor is it relegated to the technology sector. I would bet that every blogger and reporter shares this sentiment daily, with some already publishing similar “no embargo” policies.

But, are you really surprised that it has come to this?

We can’t blame TechCrunch however, we have to hold up the mirror and take a deep, honest, and introspective look at our role in this debacle, as well as the overall branding crisis that shrouds the PR industry.

The truth is that embargoes are special. They are not supposed to be used as a “PR trick” for locking-in stories with anyone and everyone. Ideally, they’re strategically reserved for important stories and they’re only effective when used in a “less is more” approach. Embargoes ARE NOT dead, however, they need to be practiced with great focus and respect. I guarantee you greater results and stronger relationships if you work with a smaller group of trusted and relevant contacts rather than embargo spamming everyone from the A-list to the C-list in your wish list.

Yes, there’s pressure to send your news to everyone.

Yes, we’re judged by quantity, not quality.

Yes, it’s not fair

So what are you going to do about it?

Start by pushing back. But, do so armed with the tangible reality that there are consequences for not learning or emboding a “less is more” approach.

Print this post, the original TC post, and the following articles and share them with decision makers (this is just a short representation of the thousands of recent and readily available articles screaming for PR to change):

Michael Arrington
Chris Anderson
Gina Trapani
Duncan Riley
Steve Rubel
Robert Scoble
RWW – Why and How Embargoes Work
The Poster Child for Everything Wrong in PR

Next, contact a few key individuals and work with them, one on one, to develop an important story under embargo. Remember, less is more and ALWAYS ask first before arbitrarily sending embargoed information. Monitor the results using site traffic, registrations, sales, referrals, linkbacks, conversations, and host of “old but new” tools for measuring PR success.

PLEASE READ: PR doesn’t stop after the news breaks. Tomorrow’s PR is powered by a medley of informed, humanized, and participatory engagement strategies that help stories flourish, not just from a top-down, one-to-many “influencer” campaign, but also through direct, peer-to-peer and many-to-many conversations that connect with, and inspire, your communities. The people who identify with your story, recognize relevance and feel that they’re “heard,” will enlist as loyal, surrogate storytellers, who will organically extend your reach and create opportunities for new relationships. In the process, you will learn that people, whether they’re reporters, analysts, bloggers, customers, or peers, will redefine your interpretation and practice of PR from “media and blogger relations” to true “Public” Relations.

The Social Web is serving as an unprecedented platform and repository for the dissection and bashing of individual PR people, companies, and agencies. Its influence is only gaining force. Time is running out for those who choose to operate within the confines of an aging and broken model of Public Relations.

We, as an industry, must immediately embody the transparency and focus required to engage and cultivate meaningful and rewarding relationships with the very people who can help us connect our stories to those they’ll benefit.

This isn’t email marketing. It’s not a numbers game. There are real people on the other side of our “pitch.” This process must become humanized once again.

These are the new rules of engagement

This is the new art and science of breaking news.

Welcome to the new era of PR.

Other voices on the subject:
CenterNetworks
Jeremy Toeman
Louis Gray
Danny Sullivan
MG Siegler

Must-reads on PR 2.0:

- The New Rules for Breaking News Part I
- The New Rules for Breaking News Part II: Beware of Embargoes
- PR is Not Dead
- PR 2.0 = The Evolution of PR, Nothing Less, Nothing More
- Dear Chris Anderson, an Open Letter to Make Things Right
- PR Secrets for Startups (on TechCrunch)

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  • Heather

    I totally agree with you! I don’t “blast” pitches out to ppl. I try to make them personalized to the reporter’s beat/interest. There are too many so-called PR people who don’t really know what they’re doing who give us all a bad rap.

    I think a lot of this also needs to go back to communication. PR is best when you develop a relationship with someone. And now thanks to Twitter, Facebook, etc –it’s easier than ever to establish a relationship.

    We blogged about this TechCrunch situation (at http://www.costadevault.com/blog), but from the communication perspective and the need for PR pros and journalists to work together better in a respectful manner. I hope people who read your post understand that the PR industry is facing its own identity crisis.

  • Doug Haslam

    Brian– Great recap. Upshot here is– don’t give embargoes to TechCrunch. Move on, right?

    Also, embargoes have their place- and their reasons for working– if I may be so crass as to link, I had a 10/31 blog post about an embargo that did work– for all the right reasons (trusted right reporters, needed to hold news for internal client reasons, and made sure to monitor– by the minute):

    http://doughaslam.com/2008/10/31/embargos-in-the-new-age-of-public-relations-not-dead-yet/

  • Richard MacManus

    Great post Brian. Ultimately my favorite PR people are the folks that try to find the right angle for our publication. but I realise that PR people are just as busy as media/blog people, so a lot of times it’s the time pressures that lead to people getting annoyed. But your approach in this post is ideal, so thanks for taking the time to write posts like this.

  • Jennifer

    Great post, and thanks for pointing out what should be obvious to PR practitioners–being crushed for time is not an excuse for sloppy, spammish work. The problem, in my opinion, goes well beyond the overuse of the embargo. It goes to the overuse of news releases in general.

    You are correct in pointing out that PR people need to start pushing back on this. It will be very, very, tough in this climate to do so. PR isn’t just about getting media coverage, after all. If by pushing back and restricting news releases to actual news and reserving embargoes for actual embargo situations (Doug’s post on this is great, BTW) leads to fewer releases, this is a good outcome not a bad one.

    I think a wholesale revamping of the media relations portion of PR is in order. This spam is driven by the need for ‘hits’ to fill useless, annoying, and (possibly) copyright-infringing clip books to prove worth (and it’s made easier by the ready availability of email lists that some in PR choose to use wholesale instead of selectively). I’m amazed that clients still judge PR firms by this metric (and don’t get me started on the uselessness that is ad equivalency).

    Identifying the root cause of this propensity to send out mass releases is critical–this behavior must stop, or the entire industry (even the good guys) will suffer for it.

    Jen

  • Tory

    This isn’t email marketing. It’s not a numbers game. There are real people on the other side of our “pitch.” This process must become humanized once again.

    These are the new rules of engagement

    This is the new art and science of breaking news.

    Welcome to the new era of PR.

    Great post, Brian! Really brings some points home…and I think as we get ready to enter yet another year, hopefully our industry will understand and realize these key facts. Someone is reading your pitch, and is either going to cover the news or not. So develop the relationships first, and then (and only then) attempt to sell them your news.

    PS – I have a lot of books on my holiday reading list now, so thank you! ;)

  • Ann Marie

    I appreciate that you continue to hold all of our feet to the fire, pushing us to do better.

    PR is most effective when we have clients who look to us as the experts, trust our counsel and understand when we push back. Setting these expectations and ground rules should be part of every new business discussion, but it’s not a one-time shot. It’s an ongoing (sometimes exhausting) process. When the economy is healthy and we’re turning away business, it’s easier to do. But I hope we can all start 2009 with a resolution to live up to the challenges you laid out for us here.

  • Michael Draznin

    Brian,
    Very interesting post. Addresses a lot of difficult issues that have continued an unfortunate dynamic between the two sides. On that point, what may be new to some tech-focus comm’s specialists, really isn’t new in other sectors. This has been the m.o. of most reporters, editors and venues in traditional marketing media for years. And no one even attempted to disguise this unethical (imho) way of working. At the end of the day, it’s tough to make a case for professional credibility on either side when so much responsibility is entrusted to “pro’s” who think that a phone and a computer are all that’s required for them to be experts. Kinda scary, actually. Frustrating for sure. Hm, sorry if this became a rant. Both sides need to up their games significantly.

  • Ruth Seeley

    Great, resource-rich post – thanks so much.

    Glad you raised the quantity vs quality item, which has always been my pet peeve. One good feature has always been worth 10,000 ‘mentions’ to me, but unfortunately clients don’t always see it that way.

    Personally, as a news consumer myself, I don’t feel any particular allegiance to the outlet that’s first with the story; the allegiances I feel are to those outlets that can consistently be trusted to answer all the questions I have and provide background and perspective.

    Which is why I was so delighted to come across Todd Sieling’s Slow Blogging Manifesto: http://toddsieling.com/slowblog/?page_id=10

  • Ryan

    Brian-
    Just wanted to let you know that I really respect the way you “play this game”. Always handled very strategically, fairly, and professionally.

    Great work man.

  • Scott Hepburn

    I couldn’t agree more with your readers who point out the need for serious change in the PR industry, Brian.

    Still, I think Arrington’s response is pretty childish. And a quick glance through his readers’ comments shows I’m not the only one.

    We’re ALL in the midst of significant evolutions of our industries — PR, journalism/publishing, marketing. We’re witnesses to the evolution, contributors to it, and when we write posts like Michael’s, we’re barriers to it.

    I wish guys like Arrington would realize that we need each other, and flipping each other the bird does us no good. Let’s all man up, sit down at the table together, and find better ways to reach out to and educate those still clinging to the old ways of our crafts.

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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