A company has a news announcement they want to make regarding a new product. They brief the media with the understanding they agree to adhering to a certain day and time and in quid pro quo fashion, the media agree not to write anything before then.
For the uninformed, this is known as an embargo and for decades the media have respected this practice as status quo, mostly because it offers parity amongst journalists covering a single topic. There are no advantages of one outlet over another, and ultimately this leads to higher quality stories because of the company’s willingness to share the news ahead of a scheduled release date.
Yet in today’s world of Long Tail media, the idea of an embargo seems not only passé but also potentially damaging to brands that try to enforce them.
The Ubiquity of Information
Embargoes work when there’s a single source of data, namely the company enforcing the embargo that offers accurate information on the topic at hand. The Internet paradigm however has changed the course of accessibility to data.
News outlets are comfortable uncovering sources inaccessible ten years ago and the ways to confirm news without a company’s acknowledgement for accuracy is easily circumvented.
Take LinkedIn for example. In product development, where next generation projects are masked behind alphanumeric product codes, one simply has to search for the product or project code itself to uncover employees and suppliers who use it as part of their job title. Digging deeper, you could deduce certain projects based on the specific focus highlighted in a profile via job description.
Furthermore the rapid-fire velocity of social media can be filtered down to additional insights through Boolean keyword queries, taking a complex topic and reducing it to relevant snippets of data. In a field covered by journalists, it’s easy to identify what someone is working on through key phrases, or more importantly when they’re working on it through Foursquare check-ins to engineering buildings or offices, tweets that touch on certain information, even Instagram photos and Google Plus updates.
Sources affiliated but beyond the reach of a company can corroborate news without the company’s permission and thus begin the debate of embargo vs. gag rule. If the media agree and respect an embargo because that’s’ the source of their information, then they should be held accountable if it’s broken. However, if the story is bigger than the embargo, and is considered too important to wait, then why should the media be punished for independent reporting?
Reaching an Inflection Point
And that is the point of inflection the world of journalism faces. News is now a commodity, and the distribution model leans heavily towards people as media. Thus, the ramifications are dire. Business consultant Terry Heaton touches on the topic in a blog post titled TV News in a Postmodern World: News as a Commodity, “In the world of media, products used to be divided into categories: newspapers, magazines, television, radio, etc, but the personal media revolution is eliminating the infrastructure and distribution mechanisms that make each of these unique. Not only is the digital generation taking advantage of this to create their own media companies, but the incumbent companies are using technology to transform themselves as well.”
This transformation comes at a cost, speed to market being one of them. Examples can be drawn from any industry – from entertainment and the latest movie to the newest smart device. Accuracy has been replaced with speculation where first to the fence is rewarded with engagement metrics (likes, shares, linkbacks) that drive revenue through unique visitors.
A comparable analogy would be the use of social media apps. A 2008 study conducted by Roger Margoulas and Ben Lorica at O’Reilly Research analyzed approximately 30,000 facebook apps. Usage was highly concentrated among the top few apps where the collective action of millions of Facebook users continue to churn the makeup of top apps: new applications join the winners and old winners die and are buried in the tail.
How is this relevant to journalism? There’s less loyalty to the messenger verses interest in the message today. Consumers are simply agnostic to the source, they just want to be stimulated. Speaking to a friend in the industry, when discussing the topic of breaking embargoes, they exclaimed, “The competition to appear relevant has [sic] gotten so out of whack. Not an excuse but odd decisions are getting made (as a result).”
Finding a Solution
In some instances, high traffic automotive and technology enthusiast sites such as Techcrunch and Jalopnik have enforced a “no embargo” rule on companies sharing information with them. Larger media entitles such as the Wall Street Journal followed suit in 2009. By clearly stating they will not adhere to embargoes, the onus is on the companies who provide information to avoid sharing it for fear of it being released early.
The reality is, in some instances, embargoes are a necessary tactic to offering the very best, most accurate information to the media. So is there a happy medium between continuing the practice and abandoning it all together?
The short answer is yes but it comes at a cost. In order to govern an embargo, a company must be willing to cut its nose to spite its face. By clearly outlining not just the embargo but the consequences for knowingly breaking it, a company stands a chance of holding the media accountable for honoring information that is provided directly to them by the company itself.
This has been substantiated notably by Techcrunch founder Michael Arrington, who after acknowledging their defiance to the embargo process, proclaimed “…whoever broke (an embargo)…generally gets more eyeballs and attention than the others, so there are lots of incentives for mistakes. Particularly because no one ever punishes the offenders. “
Companies need to decide what’s important when it comes to their messaging. Over the next few years, platforms will continue to converge and competition will remain fierce for the attention of consumers. In a world of immediacy and instant rewards, being told to wait simply won’t cut it anymore.