Honoring press embargoes
In 2008, TechCrunch Founder Michael Arrington articulated his frustration with public relations professionals, embargoes, and the failure of companies to actually penalize those in violation of press embargo agreements (press embargoes are typically issued by public relations companies or departments and are designed to assess if a story will be picked up and by whom. Written agreement typically takes place prior to agreed media approval to participate in closed presentations that the “news” will not be released until a time specified by the company releasing the statement or product). Arrington explains eloquently in his article that the failure of PR companies to actually enforce violations of the embargo agreements is frustrating, and that TechCrunch would no longer honor them. From a publisher’s perspective, I heard the message Arrington sent to read, if it’s not exclusive to us, it’s useless and a waste of our time. If you want an agreement, make it an exclusive. Whether or not he was bluffing didn’t matter, word traveled quickly.
Fast forward to April of 2009 where an alleged leak surfaced from the Wall Street Journal that they will no longer honor embargoes “without prior approval of a deputy managing editor,” said Nick Ragone. Kyle Austin of the Racepoint Group quotes an unnamed source at the WSJ, “We can still work on advanced stuff with a certain publication date in mind, but we can’t accept an embargo that ties our hands to a particular time, particularly one that isn’t exclusive.”
How AG handles press embargoes
We’re consistently asked to cover products, services, and launches and we are held to embargoes which we’re happy to honor, but we have a very simple clause within our agreement that essentially states that if any entity breaks the embargo or we find the product live and in the public domain, we will run the story. It only seems fair. PR companies and departments aren’t typically concerned with the manpower it takes to run down embargoes, so our claim to fame is that we only write about the releases we believe matter to our niche, and if the news is exclusive and we decline to publish, the PR person is told at the time of presentation, but the bottom line is that we honor our word.
This past week, AgentGenius (AGBeat) was contacted by Realtor.com to participate in a product preview call conducted by Errol Samuelson, Chief Revenue Officer and President of Realtor.com about their new iPad real estate search app in which the story was to be released no sooner than 6:35 AM EST on Tuesday, April 26th. This time was agreed to by all participants of the call in writing which included a who’s who of news organizations and to our knowledge, all have kept their word except for the Wall Street Journal who released the story at 4:47 PM PT on Monday April 25th via the WSJ’s All Things Digital website at significant risk of future exclusion to stories such as this one (or greater) where Realtor.com may foresee it as a leaky risk of competitive information. AGBeat was the first to find and report the breach to Realtor.com.
WSJ benefits from breaching embargo
What’s the problem? So what? The Wall Street Journal got a scoop and ran with it? No, the Wall Street Journal did not. They stole a story, they did no work, and they’re already profiting from it in terms of traffic and revenue as Google sees the Wall Street Journal as the original source of the story. AG contacted both the journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Tricia Duryee, as well as the communications department for Realtor.com for comment and neither have responded on the record, however, we were asked by Realtor.com to abide by the embargo and we have, but only because we had already agreed with the understanding that the app would go live in the iTunes store early so journalists could test the app. Realtor.com is a site advertiser at AGBeat, as is the Wall Street Journal but we have opted to terminate our agreements with the WSJ publication. Our position is simple- if we at AGBeat deem an entity to be unethical, we have a duty to our stakeholders (our readers) not to promote that product. It’s not the first time we’ve terminated or passed on a relationship we could not endorse, and we doubt it will be our last.
Like Arrington, we’re frustrated with embargo breakers, and a lack of any real teeth to the good faith agreements PR companies hold media to, but we believe keeping our word is above and beyond that issue. Punishment is likely better handled by exposing unethical behavior by media, bloggers, and the like, beginning in this case with the Wall Street Journal.
The other side of the coin
There is a flip side to the argument that the Wall Street Journal Editors are acting in an unethical manner as presented by the JagWire Group in an editorial on embargoes. They cite a senior lecturer at Boston University, “on the face of it, it sounds like someone is trying to control the news for their own agenda…I’m guessing that most editors would find this practice to be unsavory.”
To that end, we respond that media outlets should be up front and honest as journalists and simply say, “no, we do not honor any news embargo.” This is absolutely the only ethical response possible if asked to violate one’s own integrity. Not maybe, not yes but mean no, but absolutely no thank you.