Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Killing embargoes cuts both ways

Bloggers killed embargoes; there is no doubt about that.

Last week, Bobbie Carlton posted a great blog explaining what embargoes were and why PR people used them.

When done well, an embargo made sure that every outlet had the chance to print the story at the same time. More importantly perhaps, embargoes gave reporters a chance to report on a story, not merely rewrite a press release or announcement.

Back in the day, a good PR pitch had a customer and an independent analyst who could competently talk about pain points and product benefits. If you didn't have those pieces of independent corroboration, it was hard to sell a story to the media because a smart reporter does not trust a vendor's word. An enterprising reporter might even want to reach out to her own sources. It takes time for a reporter to interview all those people and talk to the vendor, let alone synthesize all of that information into a coherent story.

Embargoes gave the reporter time to research the story without the fear of getting scooped. It also meant every reporter got a chance to write the story because the vendor did not have to play favorites and everyone who wanted to cover a particular product launch could.

As much as reporters like to complain about embargoes, like so many other things in PR, the reporters' interests were served by the arrangement.

Many people give TechCrunch the credit for killing embargoes, but they only delivered the final blow. Long before TechCrunch formerly said no thanks to embargoes, PR types rarely briefed bloggers ahead of an announcement. Everyone knew bloggers weren't in the embargoed circle of trust, and as everyone knew the lay of the land, everyone played nicely in the sandbox.

Once TechCrunch got large enough to influence buying decisions, it had enough power to dictate the terms of the PR relationship. Money talks. In TechCrunch's case money loudly shouts that it will do whatever it damn well pleases. TechCrunch said they would no longer honor embargoes and almost every other blogger fell into line.

Bloggers play a different game than traditional media and their rules of engagement are different. That's fine as long as their rules don't change without warning.

Rules of engagement in PR are like an umpire's strike zone in baseball. Every umpire has a different one, but regardless of whether the umpire's strike zone favors the hitter or the pitcher, the player just wants the umpire to be consistent in his approach. Players go batty, so to speak, when the strike zone changes throughout the game.

In this case PR pros are baseball players, without the million dollar salaries. With consistent rules of engagement, we can decide when we want to give a reporter or blogger the news and they can decide whether or not to run the story.

Back in the days of embargoes, a good PR pro knew if an outlet was going to run a story. If a reporter conducted an interview, she usually wrote a story. If you gave a reporter embargoed information and she did not think it was worth covering, a good reporter would let you know that up front.

Once bloggers decided not to honor embargoes and thus tip their hand about whether or not they would cover a story, a PR pro's ability to predict coverage became more difficult. If there is one thing PR people want, it's the ability to set expectations and to tell a client how much coverage he will garner from a big launch.

Without the crystal ball, it's a crap shoot that, like so many things with social media, leaves PR people a little uneasy.

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