Mike Arrington of TechCrunch has gone on the offensive having been on the receiving end of complaints about his site apparently not running stories unless they are exclusives and of repeatedly breaking embargoes. There is good news and bad news with this situation.
The good news is that, if you are on the receiving end of these complaints, you are the outlet to watch for a certain kind of story. And, if you like reading about oddly named Web 2.0 mash-up businesses, what better place to go than TechCrunch? The bad news is that you get a reputation for unfair dealing, although I doubt whether this actually matters in the real world, for reasons I'll explain below. However, if you are doing any coverage of startups, you will be dealing with this issue day in, day out. It, unfortunately, goes with the territory. It is part of the reason why I have come to loathe doing startup-related things: you find yourself horse-trading more than researching for a bunch of non-stories about companies most of which will have been wiped off the face of the planet in less than five years.
Arrington argues that TechCrunch is the victim of PRs doing a bit of double-dealing. The PR's client settles on a date for a launch of some kind - the various media outlets get interviews ahead of this launch date, having agreed to an embargo date and time. Then it all gets a bit fuzzy. The client, the PR or both may have decided that it's worth giving a newspaper or a website an exclusive on the same story. So, they ring up the editor responsible for the section and provide an earlier date for the embargo. What happens next is the problem - when the other outlets realise that they obeyed an embargo that didn't really exist, they complain. The PR then may tell them that the paper with the early story "broke the embargo" in a "what can you do, who can you turn to?" tone of voice. Arrington is right. This happens.
It is relatively unusual for everyone to be offered interviews ahead of time and then watch as another paper appears to broke the embargo. 'Exclusives' are as often as not low-value announcements that the PR knows no-one will take up unless there is something else on offer. It's one reason why I tend to avoid 'exclusives' provided by companies unless it happens to come as a by-product of something that is otherwise interesting.
With many of these announcements, the exclusive is timed to coincide with the release going on general distribution. No-one, apart from the paper with the exclusive, does an interview. Generally, no-one else cares when the story does appear, although it will be a craptacular day for the PR if it turns out the story was more interesting than they assumed. This tends to lead to "the dog ate the press release" kind of excuse: "Oh we sent it out last Thursday, it must have got caught in the spam filter. You were definitely on our list for that one."
There are four general scenarios that lead up to the "broken embargo" story. One is that the paper getting the exclusive does not know that other people are being briefed ahead of a different embargo. Generally, as an editor, you're not too bothered about when other people get something, just as long as it's not ahead of you. The idea that any embargo got broken comes as a bit of a surprise.
The second is the result of horse-trading - this is where PRs will, most often, trot out the broken embargo excuse. You are most likely to see this on a weekly print publication. What happens is that the PR discusses the embargo and you, as editor, say: "That's no good to me. I want to run it on this day or I don't care about the story." The PR has a choice: say "yes, that's OK" or know that this particular paper won't touch the release or the interview with a bargepole. You could argue that the paper did indeed break the embargo but the tacit agreement of the PR suggests otherwise.
It doesn't take a genius to work out that, for every client and every announcement, there is a size of circulation or reach for which the PR will roll over. The open question is whether the decision to roll over damages the PR's or client's reputation enough to cause problems down the line. However, it's nowhere near as bad as scenario four.
The third is not as common as it could be. Sometimes you just forget about the embargo or you give the story to someone else on the team without telling them about it. And sometimes, you actually don't know about the embargo. The last sounds strange but I've been there. If I do an interview, I will often completely ignore the release and the presentation - as long as I am confident enough in my notes and the interviewee was clear, I will go with that. If the only time an embargo is mentioned is on one of those bits of paper, that's tough luck. I have had conversations along the lines of:
"Why did you break the embargo?"
"The embargo mentioned on the press release."
"There was an embargo date?...Where?...Oh, there."
However, there was the time when the embargo date was transmitted psychically: the story was the result of a more general interview which was, apparently, to have been issued on a release some time later. There is a belief among some PRs that journalists are unwilling to write some stories, even from face-to-face interviews, without some form of release. Do not believe them. They are misguided, even if experience does suggest to them otherwise. Similarly, some PRs believe you can impose an embargo unilaterally. Don't try that at home. You might be dismayed by the results.
Then you have scenario number four. This generally happens with embargoes that move something like a full week sometime during the round of interviews (and I've seen one move by two weeks - this was pretty much pre-Interweb, you understand). It's very difficult to find the root cause of this one as it's in no-one's interest to explain what really happened. However, you can usually bank on this one being the result of someone panicking at some time and taking drastic action to ensure that a favoured paper does not get stiffed by a competitor. In the cases that this one has gone the wrong way for me, I have never, ever forgotten the name of the client, and not in a good way. Oddly, I have forgotten who the PR was in all but one of the cases. So, when people ask why PRs get away with some tricks, I think I can explain: all the consequences descend on the client. However, it can also be the client's fault.
What seems to happen is that the round of briefings starts with a set date for an embargo. Then, someone starts to think that one paper won't, for some reason, honour the embargo. So, in order to prevent the relationship going sour elsewhere, they shift the embargo forward to the point where it is almost impossible for the 'suspect' paper to break. Enjoy dealing with that paper if turns out they were planning to honour the embargo. Think nuclear winter with extra frostiness.
The one that is truly burned into my memory is the launch of some vapourware that involved a trek to Berkshire to a startup's offices. I can't remember why I agreed to it as the product was vapourware of the purest form - it did finally arrive, but it took a while and what finally appeared had a rather vague connection to the original plan. On arrival at the office, the PR presented me with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I handed it straight back and asked for her to call for a cab. She was a bit surprised - presumably expecting a bit of grumble but, ultimately, compliance. She asked, why? "Because there's no point in me staying here, is there?" I replied. "I'm not signing it."
There was a bit of running around as they tried to work out what to do. After a bit of hurried whispering with the CEO, it turned out that a verbal agreement to an embargo (which I had already done over the phone) was just fine after all, or so it seemed. I did the interview, went off, did a bit of background and prepared a story for an inside technology page that would have run after the embargo date in print. As that page started rolling through production, I got an email from the PR saying that the embargo had moved forward. The next day, we saw that the main competitor had run the story (the publication dates of the two were skewed by two or three days). I asked for the story to be pulled - I had a backup that could be used. I think I wrote two pieces about the company in the last ten years, both asides within other, larger items.
So, who loses in the embargo game? It depends on who you are. You can generally tell whether PRs are genuinely bothered about papers breaking embargoes. There is an easy way to deal with it: don't offer to brief ahead of an embargo. The fact that you get supposedly serial offenders should tell you a great deal about what is actually going on. Personally, I'd cast embargoes into the outer darkness, but I don't think that's going to happen soon.