Embargoes, Prebriefings & Exclusives

For those who aren’t aware, much news is “embargoed,” which means a news publication receives information ahead of an agreed release date. There are good reasons for embargoes. But they sometimes get broken, which can be frustrating for those other publications that play by the rules. Michael Arrington today at TechCrunch has had his frustration spill over into a “no embargoes” policy — at least, unless, TechCrunch seems to get the exclusive. I’ve got some big issues with that, which I’ll share below along with my own thoughts on embargoes.

I’ve been dealing with embargoed news as part of my search coverage for probably 13 years now (as long as I’ve been writing about search). Embargoes are super helpful. They allow me to have a solid review of a product, understand how it works and provide time for me to go back to the company with specific questions and get further feedback.

While I love to break news, I’m always far more concerned about covering the news in depth. Embargoes allow this. And one reason I and others who write at Search Engine Land routinely get access to embargoed information is that we have a long track record of not breaking embargoes and doing the in-depth coverage they allow. That doesn’t mean an embargo means a product gets a love fest. Despite early access to Knol, I still didn’t like the product in my write-up. But at least I could give my readers a good, solid look at it along with my frank views.

As a publisher, these are things I hate about embargoes:

  • It Gets Out Anyway: That cool new feature you’ve been briefed about? Turns out it goes live somehow in a test, and those who weren’t prebriefed spot it and start writing. Now it seems like you’re playing catch-up. Worse, the company that prebriefed (for us, usually Google, Yahoo and Microsoft) might take ages to officially lift the embargo, even though the news is out unofficially.
  • Embargoes Get Broken: Someone in the group that gets prebriefed screws up. They hit the wrong publish time. They see the story out there in another way (like when a live test is spotted in the wild) and assume someone else broke the embargo, so they go ahead with their story. Or they just break it, sometimes using the excuse of a “insider tip” or news elsewhere. And the rest sitting on the embargo play catch-up.
  • Embargoes Get Kind Of Pregnant: This is where the publication just can’t hold back from saying they know something “big” is happening on “X date” and might be related to “X thing” but can’t say more. This annoys the hell out of me. Just break the embargo, already, rather than this half-leaking nonsense.
  • Embargoes Dangled As Enticement: This is where a company tries to feed you an exclusive — or promises you’ll have it exclusively — as a way to make their product seem better than it might be. The flip-side of this enticement is that if you don’t take the story, they’ll hand that plum to someone else.

And here are some of my reactions to these things:

  • I Don’t Care If It Gets Out (Kind Of): If the tech pubs want to duke it out over being first with a story, have fun. Like I said, sure, it’s nice to be first. But by having a prebrief, I have time to understand how to create a story that best serves the long-term interests of my readers. That’s been working for over a decade, and I’ll stick with it. If an embargo breaks, it sucks — but I’d rather have known the story was coming and still be ready for it than not to have known at all.
  • Don’t Release At Midnight: It used to be that releases often happened at Midnight Eastern. Then people would get confused about which day midnight referred to. So then 12:01am started getting used. Look, never use midnight. Pick a time zone (I like Pacific) where whenever the release is happening, it’s not at the 12 o’clock hour.
  • Release An Embargo Early: C’mon. When the news gets out, and you know it’s out, consider letting the pubs you prebriefed write sooner.
  • Communicate: Hey, that release is delayed? Then you’d better damn well tell those you prebriefed to hold their stories — and do it more than five minutes before the launch time (or worse, 10 minutes after). We have lots of stuff scheduled. We need time to adjust.
  • Don’t Reward Bad Behavior: I’ve seen embargoes broken in what seems an intentional manner and the publications still keep getting briefed. Is it any wonder the other pubs get tired of embargoes? If someone keeps doing that, why do they keep getting the benefit of a prebrief?
  • I’m Not Stupid — Don’t Game Me With Enticement: Unlike a place like TechCrunch or AllThingsD or Mashable, Search Engine Land is pretty focused on what we cover (search) and the players we deal with (mostly Google, Yahoo and Microsoft). None of those players tries the enticement game with us. But occasionally we do get some small start-up trying to pitch that we’ll get the exclusive along with the suggestion we don’t want to miss out. That’s an excellent way to convince me you don’t deserve coverage at all. I know all the other places you might take your story. And for the most part, I take the attitude that if some of these other places do a nice write-up on something, I’ll point at them and spend the time I save on something else. So that game doesn’t work with me.

And now some specific reactions to what Mike wrote. My biggest issue is with this, about his new policy:

We will honor embargoes from trusted companies and PR firms who give us the news exclusively, so we know there won’t be any mistakes. There are also a handful – maybe three – people who we trust enough to continue to work with them on general embargoes (if you are a PR person and wondering if you’re on that list, you’re not). But for the vast majority of news we get in our inboxes, we’re just going to fire it off to our readers ad hoc whenever we please.

This reads as if TechCrunch is saying that if it is the only publication prebriefed about a story, then it will honor an embargo. But if other publications are included, then TechCrunch doesn’t want the prebrief or will break it if a PR company is stupid enough to still include them.

I commented asking Mike to clarify this, and I hope I’m reading it incorrectly. But if that is how TechCrunch is playing it, it sucks that it seems like they’re trying to exchange an embargo promise to gain an exclusive at the expense of other publications.

The expense? Well, TechCrunch is the top tech blog on the net (AllThingsD, which is newer, is getting there). If TechCrunch says no pay, no play, in the exclusive sense — then other pubs may find they get no prebriefs at all. Potentially, Search Engine Land might find itself frozen out of prebriefs from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft because they might seek the wider audience that TechCrunch has.

Personally, I’m not worried about it. After years of covering the search space, I don’t expect at all that suddenly, an effort to please TechCrunch is going to cause that type of exclusion. I do wish Mike would clarify things more and back off from the “we’ve gotta have the exclusive” suggestion, because that’s almost as bad as the PR companies who pitch embargoed stuff in the first place. There’s plenty of room for a variety of publications to be prebriefed. Prebriefings are useful. And rather than exclusive, we need more thoughtful and diverse commentary about news that comes out, not more fighting to be the first with a four paragraph write-up.

For more, see related discussion at Techmeme.