Embargoes Work — Except When They’re Broken

By Josh Catone
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You may have read this morning about the new blog network from widget platform Widgetbox. The product sounds pretty cool — a vertically channelized widget that shares content between the 200,000 blogs in the Widgetbox network representing 64 million monthly unique viewers. The only problem? You weren’t supposed to read that news until tomorrow.

News of the Widgetbox blog network was under embargo until 1pm PT on Friday. Unfortunately for anyone who was pre-briefed under embargo, TechCrunch published a post about the story at 6am PT on Thursday. Yes, they broke the embargo by a full 37 hours.

There’s a chance that this wasn’t TechCrunch’s fault — they apparently ran into Widgetbox CEO Will Price at an event and the embargo time might not have been clearly communicated to them. I’m willing to give Jason Kincaid (the TechCrunch writer) the benefit of the doubt, but still, the result is that I and anyone else who was pre-briefed by Widgetbox last week has been left out in the cold. Now, a good portion of my readers have probably already seen this news come through their feed reader a full day and a half earlier than I expected.

So I have two options: I can either drop what I’m doing and rush to finish my post so I can get something up there at near the same time as the publication that broke the embargo. Or I can just swallow the story and skip it completely. Neither is very attractive. Either I have to rearrange my life to pump out a lower impact post, and rush it, so it will likely be of lower quality, as well. Or I can skip the post altogether which means less content on my site and that the 40 minutes I spent being briefed last week was a complete waste of my time.

Regardless of whose fault this one was, the key takeaway is simple: when embargoes are broken, the embargo process doesn’t work. And it’s also detrimental to everyone involved — I now have a slightly less favorable opinion of the company, PR firm, and blog that broke the embargo, because it’s really hard for me to tell exactly who messed up; I just know that someone definitely did.


So the lessons are here:

  1. If you’re a blogger, don’t break embargoes. Accidents happen, but if you do it on purpose, it’s bush league. So don’t do it. If you’re briefed on something that isn’t launching for a few days/weeks/whatever, ask if there is an embargo. If you break an embargo because the PR firm screwed up and forgot mention it, you’ll still look like the jerk to your peers even though it wasn’t your fault.
  2. If you’re a CEO, leave the PR to your PR firm. You’re paying them five grand or more per month for a reason — to keep the media happy and in the loop and maximize your press coverage. Taking things into your own hands and going around the PR people working on your account is how mistakes are made, and you’re the one who’ll get hurt.
  3. If you’re a Public Relations pro, keep tabs on your clients. When this kind of thing happens, it reflects poorly on you, and bloggers are less likely to trust you and write about your clients as a result. Don’t let an overzealous client give you a black eye by going over your head and bringing an embargoed story to a formerly unbriefed source.

Again, it’s really hard to know exactly what happened in this specific case. But the bottom line is that everyone who was pre-briefed last week was burned this morning when for whatever reason an embargo was broken. The embargo process is very useful (for reason’s why, see this post by Allen Stern or this post by Marshall Kirkpatrick). But the entire process breaks down when someone breaks the rules — so don’t let that happen.

Update: It’s hard to know what happened — unless the CEO emails you to clarify. Will Price from Widgetbox dropped me a nice email to let me know what it was his fault that the embargo date wasn’t communicated to TechCrunch and not Jason Kincaid’s fault or PageOne PR’s fault.

So that’s Lesson #4: If you do screw up, own up to it and let everyone you talked to know that you messed up. That will go a long way toward repairing their perception of you. So kudos to Will Price for that.

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  • Alan

    I get all my tech stories through RSS feeds, like slashdot, digg, reddit, etc. When an embargo breaks, my feed is immediately flooded with the same reprints of the PR package from all of these same old sources. I flip through them without hardly a second glance. In effect, reprinting their PR package is worthless to me, as I’m sure it is to most readers.

    However, if you have a unique perspective on the item, I will read it no matter if the PR packaged news came out of embargo two weeks ago.

    Why do I want to use it? How will this help me? Answer these REAL questions for me instead of crying about not being able to publish the same facts from the same Press release at the same time as everyone else…

    If all you are doing is rehashing the press release, save us ALL some time and find something else to post about…

  • @Alan Actually, adequate lead time on an embargo helps bloggers not to just rehash the press release (at least, it does for those who put some effort into it). Embargoes give us a chance to be briefed on the news ahead of time and then have a chance to sit back and evaluate it, digest, analyze without having to worry someone will beat us to the punch (because lets face it: blogs are driven by ads, ads are sold on page views, and scoops (can) drive page views).

  • anonymous coward

    That’s why online journalism is not real journalism

  • @Anonymous Coward: It would be very naive to think that print journalists don’t deal with embargoes. Embargoed news is NOT a new concept. It has existed long before bloggers.

  • anonymous coward

    I am fully aware how privileged information and media works and to expect bloggers to be held to an caliber of professional journalism is a joke. Its the internet and you need to take it a little less seriously.

  • anonymous coward2

    It would be very naive to think that print journalists don’t deal with embargoes. Embargoed news is NOT a new concept. It has existed long before bloggers.

    In fact it is long time since real journalism has vanished….

  • Jonathan

    I don’t get it, aren’t you breaking embargo in a sense and bringing more attention to the story by writing this article? I think you are over-estimating the amount of people that subscribe to every tech news blog out there, and are probably bringing readers to TechCrunch instead of keeping them here by just publishing your post when it was supposed to be published.

    It sucks when people don’t follow the widely accepted rules, but the best you can do is post your piece when it is supposed to be posted. Writing this is just shooting yourself in the foot and bringing attention to the fact that you aren’t writing about the story that other people are writing about.

  • @Jonathan: I see what you’re saying, but the point of this story was really to give advice to everyone in the embargo process to try to minimize how often this sort of things happens. I’ve received some emails from PR reps saying they’ve taken what I said in this post to heart. So that’s positive, in my opinion. :)

  • mikemike

    Hahhahahaha. I just loved the “bush league” bit, especially because bush was left in lowercase.