My point of view on embargoes is actually a stereoscope of two points.
First, I’ve done quite a bit of journalism, having written for Newsweek, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, CNET, Oregon Business and others. I have also worked as a corporate communications professional for Ask.com, Autoweb, Elance, Visa, PBwiki and more. Triangulating on embargoes from both these positions I have, I think, a very clear and distinct perspective. This perspective also happens to harmonizes very well with my gut feeling. Namely, embargoes suck. They’re bad for journalism, they’re bad for business, and they’re bad for the people that both disciplines ostensibly serve.
Here are the reasons why I believe we should dispense with them.
1. No decent journalist should have any trouble producing well-written, well-researched and complete initial news coverage (as opposed to analysis or enterprise work) on a deadline. Any journalist who needs days to write up initial coverage of say, a purchase or a new tech feature, is not going to do it right if they are given a month. Good coverage depends on experienced, hard-working, smart journalists and honest, convincing and passionate business people.
2. Embargoes discourage the cultivation of sources by journalists and of relationships with journalists by companies. Or, if relationships are created, they are of the logrolling variety, and of no use to readers and customers. Honest relationships between journalists and business people, providing again, that neither is in the other’s pocket, are the best way to create good public dialogue about a company. I don’t want to read a journalist who doesn’t know how to find and secure a source, while remaining independent of it. I’m probably only marginally interested in a company, however “important” they might be, who won’t deign to talk to a human being or two, or will only do so if that person agrees to cave in exchange for access. If they do not care enough about their products and the people who buy them to talk to journalists, you can rest assured they’re not going to care about someone as insignificant as you, the customer.
3. Embargoes indicate a company is trying to control not just its information, but how its information is received and reported upon and, therefor, how its customers and possible customers act. What’s wrong with this? It has nothing to do with business, with product, with service. It has everything to do with the belief that the goal of business is not to sell things to people, but to trick them into parting with their money. If that is what a business believes, fine. But as their customers and possible customers, we should vote with our wallets, and we should do so early and often. It is especially contemptible when the company is trying to capitalize on social media trends, even moreso if that company is itself part of that sphere of communications and information companies. Gaming social media for your company sends out a clear message of contempt for your customers. An embargo is a monument to that contempt.
To put it rather more colorfully, I’ll quote from a note I sent to Allen Stern in response to his post on the subject, occasioned in part by asking him how he felt about it. Although I enjoy Allen’s writing and respect the passion he brings to his work, I just didn’t agree with him on this.
Embargoes discourage competition among journalists and transparency among companies. Publications should take the time – and this includes blogs – to build relationships and build chops. The only “first” should be when you do it better than the other publication or writer. Companies should not take it for granted that they can punk every writer that comes along and continue to control the “message” while spinning the “We’re engaged in ‘conversations’ with our ‘community'” dreidel. And writers should not tie their blouse around their breastseses and turn their prison dungarees into hot-pants and get along to go along. That said, anyone who breaks an embargo without finding the capers necessary to say you won’t honor them beforehand, deserves a pingpong paddle across the yapper.
Embargoes are, in other words, trickery. And trickery is necessary only for those companies whose products cannot compete in the market. But it’s a habit, a bad habit, one many businesses, and many business journalists, have found hard to break.