Who Cares What TechCrunch Thinks About Embargoes?

Last week I was a guest on PTV Live (Permission TV’s weekly Internet show).  True to form, some of the most interesting conversations started before the cameras were rolling.  I have a feeling I’ll be rolling out a number of blog posts based on those exchanges. Here’s the first:  Who cares what Michael Arrington says? (I know, I know…last year’s news but knowing your history never hurts.)

As you probably remember, the PR world was abuzz late last year when TechCrunch announced it would no longer honor embargoes.  (And, I am being polite. TechCrunch was more in-your-face about it.)  Matthew Mamet, the host at Permission TV’s weekly show, asked me about it this week. And he was probably a bit surprised at my response.

To a large extent, embargoes are a relic of a time gone past.  Embargoes were originally used because there was no way to brief media efficiently and take into account all the different lead times and deadlines.  Here’s an example of how an embargo worked for me in the mid-to-late 80’s when I was working at a high tech PR agency.

Let’s go back in time to January 1987. Client product launch scheduled for May.  Input session with client to gather information about product still in development.  Look at list of relevant publications.  On that list you will find a variety of quarterly, bi-monthly, monthly, weekly, daily and broadcast publications.  List is already divided along these lines.

Chart the various deadlines and lead times.  (Each one worked slightly different but for the sake of this exercise, assume that the quarterly through the monthlies had lead times in the 3-4 month range.  Throw the product reviewers in that category too.)  The weekly publications have month lead times for feature stories and week lead times for hard news.  Daily publications are all over the place but they could put something on deck in a day.  Broadcast works similarly but you could see tape from your visit at 10:00 am on the noon show, if it was truly hot news.

Then start poking pins in the map — where are the reporters located?  Darn it if a weekly reporter shared digs with a monthly reporter.  There will probably be two trips to Cleveland and a couple to Newton, the first trips spent ducking the weekly reporters at a large industry publishing house.

Start an almost daily fight with the client to pry loose a beta copy of software to ship out to the product reviewers.  The engineers are screaming, “It’s not ready.”  It’s got no manual. No reviewers guide.  Even the list of new features and functions is still squishy. The reviewer meanwhile is pushing out the coverage date with every delay.  And your goal is to get that review available when the product launches.  And, let’s not forget that every time the product feature list changed, you’ve had to update reporters who had already been briefed.  “Hey, remember that cool feature we mentioned when we met in February, well, its being pushed out to a future release BUT we did add in this cool new feature.” (Reminds me of that old programmer’s joke, “That’s not a bug, that’s a feature!”)

Get on the phone to arrange meetings.  (No one’s got email remember, except those folks who use Prodigy and CompuServe and they really can’t communicate with anyone outside their little world. ) Some of my technology clients have email but in the editorial world, no one does.  It’s all about the phone, baby.  (Oh, yeah, and we just got a fax machine but that isn’t for making appointments unless you’re DESPERATE.)

“Yes, we’ll be in [insert your city here] in February.  The product launch will be happening in May at [insert large trade show here].  We’ll be showing it to a few reporters under embargo.  I see your print date is the 14th of the month.”  (This is the point where details were carefully negotiated on previews, depending on the street date of the publication.  Could a publication disclose that the company was launching an un-named product if their publication came out before the embargo date?  Sometimes, you could allow sneak peeks at products with full coverage to come in the next issue.  What was fair to all involved?

For the folks you couldn’t brief in-person there were phone briefings.  And for the people you couldn’t get to agree to briefings at all, there was the press release itself.  Yes, it would go out over the wire but usually they got their own mailed paper copy of the release.  “There’s an envelope-stuffing party in the conference room this afternoon!  I’ll buy the pizza.”  (And bring the superglue to mend all the paper cuts.)  You knew the United States Postal Service zones better than you knew your own family.   “These zip codes get mailed on Tuesday.  These boxes get dropped on Wednesday.  These boxes go out on Thursday.”  I even remember carefully coordinated courier visits to broadcast outlets and dailies with afternoon editions.

All so the communication came with the editorial deadline and lead time in mind.  THIS is why embargoes exist.

Today, embargoes just aren’t as relevant, anyone can get the news out quickly if they really want to.  Yes, of course, maybe you want it to appear in the print edition (maybe that isn’t as preferable as you think.)  Or maybe your CEO is on the West Coast the week before and available for a meeting.  There are situations where embargoes are necessary and benefit everyone but frankly, most PR firms seem to be using them just to make their own lives easier.  “We’ll be in your city on this date but our product launch won’t be for another month so we’ll need an embargo.”  If the reporter wants to meet then, and get a jump on the story, fine.  But don’t throw around embargoes for the heck of it.  Please.

3 thoughts on “Who Cares What TechCrunch Thinks About Embargoes?

  1. Isn’t Techcrunch just advertising to everyone that they aren’t adding value by their policy? Analysis and review take time, and embargos let companies get insightful comment day 1 while keeping the “big bang” alive. Techcrunch is just opting out of offering insight, no?

  2. Rich is, I think, onto the general comment I’d make. Specifically, the Web has significantly polarized what publications are and do.

    In the time BW (Before Web), there was a broad spectrum trading off timeliness for analysis, from dailies to weeklies, to monthlies. With vicious generalization, you might say that a new product announcement was timely for a daily while a thorough review was in a monthly. It takes an auto company years to develop a vehicle, tool the plant, ramp up production, etc. If they show a preview a year ahead of time, there’s lots of time to get a review published before the launch and there are not too many ways a competitor can copy a differentiating feature in time.

    Marketing and PR then kicked in. Showing a car a year before it’s available is a lot less effective with consumers than a big launch with the product on the dealers’ lots. Product launches thus got to be a bigger deal. This led to the “lead time” timing you discuss, Bobbie, and embargoes. But note that that also significantly takes away the trade-off of timeliness for analysis: the daily gets very little value add over the monthly that comes out a day or two later… with a full review.

    The Web then undercut this further. Why choreograph a bunch of dailies when you can simply post your press release on the Web? As Rich said, the dailies are not adding a lot of value anyway (unless you view snarky self-aggrandizing commentary as valuable). Couple that with the highly compressed time-to-market cycles of today… years for cars have been replaced by mere weeks for apps.

    That then gets us to where we are today: there’s a lot of low-value “news” and some high-value analysis (e.g., Ars Technica). And I think that, in turn, answers the embargo question. While you’re quite right, Bobbie, that a **news** embargo is a relic of the past, I’d argue that a **review** embargo still serves a useful purpose in the lead-up to launch.

    1. Well said! Applause, applause! Sadly, I continue to see (and hear about) embargoed press releases with “news” requiring little in the way of review or even in-depth analysis.

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