If you Google the words Arrington Embargo this morning, you'll find more than 3,300 blog results, which should dispel any lingering doubts you may have that 1) the man knows how to strike a nerve and 2) we're living in a world where search is king.
Whatever you may think of Michael Arrington (check out Kara Swisher's Yertle the Turtle take on Boomtown or Jennifer Leggio at ZDNet Feeds), there are two points in his post that no one can argue. The first? "Traffic and links flow in to whoever breaks an embargo first. That means it’s a race to the bottom by new sites, who are increasingly stressed themselves." And there you have the crux of the issue: PR people, whether corporate or agency, are locked in a tango of death with journalists every time we have a piece of news to share. And, unlike the photo to the right, it ain't pretty.
At its simplest, an embargo has traditionally been the media equivalent of a pistol shot at a foot race: the runners line up, they are (hypothetically) on equal ground, the gun fires, and may the best (wo)man win. It's a safe choice for a PR person who wants to get news out broadly: if you don't want to alienate people, ask everyone to play by the same rules.
But here's our problem: the Internet has raised the stakes big time. If the news is sexy enough (say, a merger by two large companies, a significant new product, a new venture by a Silicon Valley star), there's huge upside now for journalists to jump before they hear that pistol shot. They get credit for having been first to the story, sure, but they also get the links, the traffic, the money.
My experience mirrors Kara's, though. Intentional embargo breaks are extremely rare, and there's usually a pretty harmless explanation when it happens: a time zone mistake, for example. Some outlets won't honor embargoes to begin with, so you can't break a promise you didn't make in the first place. Some PR people forget to make sure terms are clear and agreed before they offer news.
And there's a huge distinction between a Microsoft or Google's ability to send an offending reporter or blogger to Siberia and the startup's subtler recourse; after all, there are disclosure requirements for public companies, which elevates the issue to legal before you can say boo.
But beyond the immediate Sturm and Drang of this whole issue (of which the whole "hating the PR people" thing is only a symptom), our common reality is that the search-centeredness of news has changed everything about our relationship with media. And we need to wake up.
Whether or not we like it, traffic is king, as much for TechCrunch and other online outlets as it is for our clients--more so for many of them, depending on the revenue model. So guess what? Our goals are fundamentally the same.
So before we go all hand-wringy on this, we had better look at the second point that Arrington implicitly made--no less true for being screamingly obvious: trust is everything.
So while a) I think his conclusions are dopey and theatrcal (dopey like a fox: look at the link love today, for heaven's sake), and b) I am not, as far as I know, fortunate enough to be one of his anointed trusted PR people, I will tell you this:
If PR people get hung up on the set-dressing behind all of this, we're dead. The Internet has changed a lot, but it hasn't changed human nature.