Michael Arrington of Techcrunch has fuelled controversy in typically abrasive fashion with his recent post on press release embargos. He has declared war on PR firms and said his site will flagrantly disobey their embargo requests from now on.
Here’s my take as a startup founder doing his own PR and as a former Journalist.
Embargos are of benefit only to journalists. Frankly they are a pain in the behind for startup founders. I actually don’t mind sending out press releases under embargo as I realize they help journalists prepare and write a story and manage their workday. Without them a journalist’s life would be even more stressful and harried than it already is. They ask me to do it and generally better stories result. But given the choice I far would far rather not give out embargoes under the current model.
Here’s my diary of a recent (and typical) news announcement…

  • Decide on a date when we’ll be ready to release our big new feature
  • Try to predict and basically hope it will be a slow news day and that Google, Yahoo or Facebook don’t release anything major
  • Check with developers two days beforehand that things are still on track for an on-time release
  • Have to make tricky decision that same day to release in 48 hours (will it be ready?) and contact journalists to give them a 2 day ‘heads up’ that news is coming.
  • Several journalists respond by e-mail thanking me for the headsup and showing real interest in the story. They ask for the embargoed release at all different times – the evening before release, the morning of, etc
  • Have to work out whose turn it is among the inside journalists as to which one will get the preferential treatment. Someone has to get it. Journalism politics are a real headache and you try to remain equitable.
  • You offer the inside scoop to a particular journalist, perhaps because last time they got pipped to the post, or its a better story for them or its because they’ve shown special interest
  • You remember to send the release under embargo to journalists at all the different times they’ve requested
  • The big day comes and you send the release out with an embargo for Noon
  • You find out that one of the journalists already printed the story last night
  • Your preferred journalist is now pissed off and doesn’t write about it
  • All the other journalists are pissed off too and don’t write about it either
  • You don’t know any of this for sure but nobody is covering the story. Do you contact the other journalists to enquire, do you contact them to apologize? You end up apologizing to the journalists and offering them something for ‘a future time’ or ‘the next time’.
  • You have to remember what you’ve offered, for the next time and hope it doesn’t all screw up again
  • After all this you get to release the two most important things of all – the blog post with the details for your users to learn about the new feature, and the e-mail that announces the blog post to your users.
  • All that effort with embargoes, and one publication has covered the story.

So with this recent true story in mind, you would be forgiven for thinking I would be completely against embargoes. It would be far simpler for me and infinitely less stressful to organize a single co-ordinated release of information. The simultaneous actions for my imaginary release would be…

  • Blog Post on our web site is made public
  • E-mails sent to journalists
  • Emails sent to all registered users
  • Timed release of Press release on Internet wire services
  • Uploading of the Press Release onto our own site’s Press page

As a startup founder this would be by far the easiest approach to manage.
What worries me about this is approach is the effect it would have on the quality of journalism. If all journalists get the same release at the same time, and know that the rest of the free world already knows about it too, there is much less chance they will take the time to understand the news, play around with the new feature, and write something considered and informed. It will simply be ‘rush to publish’ with all the associated errors and inaccuracies.
Personally I don’t want that from journalism and I think it serves people far better that writers actually have time to learn about the news before they write about the news.
So the new formula I am working on is called the 6 Hour Embargo…

  • Aim for a date, but be flexible
  • Inform friendly journalists to expect something “that week”. Indicate a possible day
  • On the morning of the release, send a 6 hour embargoed release to all journalists at the same time
  • Be available to speak anytime within those 6 hours to answer questions and provide a personalized demo
  • Announce the release widely through all channels 6 hours later

Doing things this way would allow the journalists time to write their articles without stress, gives me the flexibility to change the day if I need to (busy news day?), minimizes the damage if someone goes out earlier with the news.
Its going to be interesting to see how this whole controversy Michael Arrington has stirred up pans out.

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