Embargoes are not broken, and long may they reign

Among the usual debate on public relations in a 2.0 world, the subject of media embargoes inevitably rises to the surface. People jumping on the good ship embargoes are broken this week include Louis Gray and Svetlana Gladkova.

Before I start though, a quick explanation for the many of you reading this who have no idea what I’m talking about, because it’s a pretty insular media term that isn’t really used regularly in the outside world in the way we use it. A media embargo dictates the time you may publish the story, allowing the writers to do their homework prior to the story becoming public. It’s a fairness tool, that gives the media a fair shot at getting the story right and allows the company to be prepared for the announcement to go public.

The common issues bloggers have with embargoes are roughly as follows:

  • some blogs get different embargo times, so a big blog will get the story first with other sites told not to publish until later
  • when there are embargo times, they are fairly regularly broken, by either bloggers or the mainstream press. Sometimes it’s intentional, a tactic so your story is consider the first to publish by sites like Crunchmeme, other times it can be accidental, and I’ve accidently broken embargoes a couple of times, usually mixing up EST and PST.
  • Louis Gray argues that we need embargoes but the system is broken on the basis of the dot points above. His answer seems to be name and shame, and transparency. Svetlana Gladkova asks the very reasonable question: shouldn’t bloggers be thinking of their readers first in delivering a quality end product, not just being first.

    Both argue their points nobly, and give food for thought, but both presume that the system is broken when I don’t believe it is. Embargoes work, and if they didn’t work, they wouldn’t be continually be used. This is not to say that the system is perfect, but it is not broken either.

    So embargoes are broken sometimes, and we as bloggers get upset about it, with some level of justification. And yet as a percentage of every single item released under embargo, how many are truly broken? I’m not sure if there’s a tangible number somebody with far too much time on their hands has come up with, but I’m willing to bet the number would be on the small side. Most people do the right thing, and embargoes are not always broken. If they were always broken, or close there to it, the PR industry would likely stop using them, because even among the worst operators, no one is stupid enough in the business to play to a pretense that will never be respected.

    We also need embargoes to continue. They are something close to a leveler that gives bloggers in particular more time to prepare to cover a company or item at something close to the level of the mainstream press. Among blogs themselves, embargoes enable me to publish a story a 4am my time in Australia because I’ve had due notice, allowing me to compete with bloggers in the United States.

    But they can be improved. Louis suggests a name and shame strategy for regular offenders. In light of any viable alternative that I can see, I’d support the call. But there is another way to deal with the issues relating to embargoes: PR hacks need to start standing up to repeat offenders.

    If (and when) I was writing a media release with an embargo time on it, I’d expect the people who received it to respect that embargo. When I was dealing with the media in a professional role, it was very simple: they play by the rules, or we’ll go to the competition first and cut them off. It nearly always worked. The reason we are seeing an increase in embargo breaking in the blogosphere is that bloggers, particularly at the bigger blogs, know they can get away with it with a wink and sorry when the PR hack lightly castigates them for breaching the embargo, and that’s presuming am email is sent, in many cases it isn’t and the nothing is said about the matter. PR is all about end results and coverage, and as long as everyone still runs the story, many in PR really don’t seem to care at all about the embargo being broken.

    It’s not entirely the fault of PR. Unfortunately at the top it has become a buyers market, where top blogs can pick and choose from the content they want to run, with the PR professionals trying their best to sell each clients story. The net result of that is that PR professionals are afraid to speak up on embargo breakers because they still need these sites and writers to feed future stories to. A payola of influence if you like, where currying favor at the top replaces any sense of fairness to all. From the PR side I understand why they won’t speak out on the issue, and yet the longer they remain silent, the lower the profession sinks in the esteem rankings. Perhaps it is such a buyers market now that no one will speak out, and things will only get worse, and perhaps embargo Armageddon may follow, but surely there must be some who put principles before the quick dollar.

    I’ll look forward to receiving my post idea under embargo, and from my perspective I just have to not forget to run it (2 week embargoes can be easily forgotten). Long may the embargo reign, the great leveler, and when used properly and respected, a tool that is fair to all.

    (img credit: DJPool)

    Comments