The Solution to PR Press Embargoes

Everybody knows that news embargoes are the stupidest thing about public relations. They’re the stupidest thing about journalism, too, especially in tech. Since we’re too swamped and/or lazy to do our jobs and go find our own stories, we accept these embargoes and perpetuate the dull cycle of reader-hostile PR recycling.

Well, embargoes are over if you want it. I’ve got a solution. But first, just for fun, let’s belabor the problem, so we can really get in the mood to solve it.

The Embargo Problem

In the absence of news, spin doctors create scarcity around scripted events, exploit journalists’ insipid obsession with firstness, spoon feed them dollops of fluffy pseudo-information, and so graciously grant the journalists permission to do their jobs at a mysterious time selected by arcane astrological methods. That’s not how life on Earth works, but it’s status quo here in the attention farming business.

Every company thinks they’re an Apple or a Google or a State Department, someone who actually controls the discourse. So they hire a PR agency to write their bombshell press releases about their new augmented reality mobile coupon-sharing network, email blast it out to reporters and tell us we can’t break their [BREAKING NEWS] until 6:31 a.m. Eastern time.

When the appointed time rolls around, a dozen blog posts about the same exact information appear simultaneously on different websites, redundant with each other, as if the information just spontaneously manifested itself.

And the readers, who are not idiots, much as the people spamming them wish they were, wake up to a feed clogged with copies of the same information and utter the sacred syllable, “MEH.”

And that’s what happens if it goes well, which it frequently doesn’t. Someone posts the story early and “breaks” the embargo. So what’s everyone else supposed to do? They publish right away if they’re nervous people, or they scrap the story, dashing the poor PR person’s dreams against the rocks.

Then the thousands of twitchy early adopters who read this kind of blog post all rush to click the link, which is either dead, or the company is still testing the site it’s launching in less than 24 hours, which promptly crashes under the nerd strain. Or nothing bad happens, and some people get to see a website a few hours before PR said they were supposed to.

No matter which scenario unfolds, everyone is pissed off now, the journalists, the PR firm, and the company. And why? Over what? Did the blogger do something maliciously? If the post went up three minutes early, maybe, sure. First! But no, usually they posted inadvertently because they screwed up trying to convert 6:31 a.m. into Pacific time and type it into their CMS.

And when the mistake is made, and the post is live, the offending journalist is left to contemplate his future on the PR blacklist, wondering, “Why the fuck was I going to publish this while everyone in the world is asleep, including myself?

Why Do Embargoes Exist?

Insofar as anyone has derived a logical answer to the question and attempted to explain it to me, here is why embargoes exist:

Unfortunately, not all companies can “get” as much “press” as they think they need to maintain the buzz while they do the nitty gritty work of building their business. So they and their PR teams identify points in their development cycle that they can use as landmarks — a new hire, a funding round, an app update — and they decide to script news events around them.

The thinking is that the embargoed information will seem exclusive, enticing reporters to write about it, and that the lead time will give everyone a chance to write a good story instead of rushing it out when the news is already out there.

Why Embargoes Don’t Work

The first fallacy in the embargo idea is that companies need to “get press.” If the information is worth finding, people will find it. Bloggers will even write about it. When an upstart company — one without de facto press clout, like Obvious Corp. — has news to share, it posts it on the company blog. Blog posts have a way of getting around the Internet. You know, when they matter.

The second embargo fallacy is that incremental company news is what people want to read. Again, the best companies in the world are exceptions to this, but every company thinks it’s the best in the world.

Companies love their products, and that’s beautiful. But people who aren’t steeped in that company’s particular problem all day only need to know a few things: does the product work or not, should they buy it or not, and, in some charismatic cases, who made it. Embargoed press releases and scripted 30-minute PowerPoint meetings do not give journalists adequate answers to these questions, so these kinds of stories don’t help readers.

Helping readers, may I remind us all, is the only thing that matters to anyone involved in this transaction.

The third embargo fallacy is the one that burns me the worst as a journalist: the quality argument. I assure you, the luxurious 36-hour window provided to us by PR is not freeing us to work extra hard on this story. It’s letting us bang it out in the exact same amount of time, schedule it, and forget about it, so we can get on to the nine other stories we’re working on.

You find that disrespectful? Suck it. We’ve got work to do. You know what’s disrespectful? 200 emails a day about the exact same thing you’re emailing us about.

And the icing on the cake is the feeling of watching an embargoed story go up, feeling kind of proud of it, since this company wanted to talk to little ol’ me, and then seeing the other sites’ stories pop up. Oh, there’s one. There’s another one. Shit. I am complicit in spamming my readers.

It is out of this feeling that my solution arises.

The Solution to Embargoes

The solution to embargoes is not for journalists to merely refuse to accept them. We can’t. We have to accept them before we see the information, and what if it really is interesting? The reality is that, half the time, it’s kind of interesting-ish, and we have to make the Faustian bargain of skipping it and missing out or writing it and trying to be the best of 15 posts about the same thing, a status that does not really exist.

The solution all journalists want is for PR to grant us exclusives. If your little newslet is so perfect for me, just give it to me. Do your homework, figure out who the best reporter in the world is on your particular topic, and give it all to him or her.

But that will almost never happen. It’s too much work for PR without enough “press.”

So here’s the solution. It’s in journalists’ hands. Before you accept an embargo, demand to see the press list. Ask the PR person which other reporters and publications he or she is pitching for this story.

If they don’t tell you, whoops, no story. If they do, you’re armed with the ability to do something interesting.

PR might not know the skills and aptitudes of particular reporters, but reporters do. They read each other all day every day. They know how each person on that list will cover the news. They can anticipate it and react to it. Advanced knowledge of who might write this story would give reporters the only thing their readers want from them: a distinguished take on the news.

In a good world, this would snap everybody out of it. Journalists would be able to accentuate the differences between each other. This would separate the pack, it would make PR’s job of identifying the right writers easier, and it might even accelerate the future of journalism away from commoditized information and toward the value of differing voices.

Is this a good world? Will PR ever give reporters the press list? I don’t know. It will take balls to ask. I’ll have to deal with getting left out of some stories.

I guess I’ll just have to find my own things to write about.