No Embargoes

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, 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.

Should You Write Your Own Wikipedia Entry?

Update: Considering Virgil Griffith’s Wikipedia Scanner, which shows which companies have edited their own entries by comparing edits to IP addresses there’s even more reason to leave the editing of your entry to others. Here’s the Wired story, “See Who’s Editing Wikipedia.”


It’s not unheard of for me to disagree with my friend Marshall Kirkpatrick. However, it’s usually he who is encouraging more restraint. In this case, Marshall suggested, in a recent post, that someone who wants to write an entry on a subject that they are connected with should do so, so long as they make it clear what their relationship is to the subject. In this case, I have to disagree, at least when it comes to writing, or materially altering, an entry about yourself, your organization or your company.

While working for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, someone noticed that the entry for the festival was incomplete. I suggested that we ask for volunteers, people who are interested in the festival but do not work for it, to augment that entry. I further suggested that we provide any volunteers who come forward with whatever information they felt they needed but then leave them to it. My feeling was that if they wrote something untrue, we could contact them for a correction or, worse come to worse, we could make the correction ourselves, but only as a last resort. The festival’s leadership disagreed. Their intent was to actively guide the work of these “volunteers,” to tell them what needed to be written and how they should write it and if that leadership did not approve, they would change the entry themselves. I disagreed strongly with this approach of gaming Wikipedia and it was one of the elements that lead to my parting ways with them.

Here’s my thinking: Considering the innate skepticism of readers, based both on the problems in journalism (both overt problems, such as the outright lies published by people like Stephen Glass and Jason Blair, and the implied shortcomings, such as alleged ideological biases) as well as problems with authorship and self-authorship in Wikipedia itself (Wales, Curry, Segenthaler), it is better to take no direct action regarding your own entry. If you author, or alter, your own entry, that entry will always be regarded with skepticism by readers and you will open yourself up to charges of cynical gaming of the medium. Why take the chance when there are alternatives open to you?

That’s why I disagree with Marshall and advise any person, organization or company to neither author nor alter their own Wikipedia entry.


Hyperlocals Guide

Shields Bialasik, the chief at LocalsGuide, which I occasionally advise, has taken my advice, and started a blog, hyperlocal 101. Not surprisingly, he is focusing on the issues surrounding “hyperlocalism.” LocalsGuide is devoted putting the concept of the immediate, geographic and personal into practice, both through their geographically-based social network and their print magazine that comes out of the network. I expect to see him expound at length in the time to come on the “culture of hyperlocalism.”

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PBwiki and the press


I’ve been working this past month helping PBwiki, the world’s largest providers of wiki software and hosting, to build on recent successes by getting some good press coverage. My goal was to secure commitments to publishing four stories, which I’ve done. (I’ll add links when the articles become available.) [Update: five now.]

There’s good and bad in doing press placement, especially if you are, or have been, a journalist (as I am and have been). The good is, once you get the commitment, you don’t have to write the story. In fact, in most cases, you can‘t, since you’re in the subject’s camp. The bad is, once you get the commitment, you can’t write the story. Sometimes, you have to find the writer but even then, if you’re on the up-and-up (oh, and I am) you can provide access, but can’t puppet the writer around because that would, among other things, reduce the credibility of the piece.

There is a nice thrill when you hit though, when your vision of The Story is appealing enough, presented well enough and focused on the right people and the editor, or reporter says, Yes, that’ s a great story.

With PBwiki it was easier than most. For one thing, the company had three good stories ready made.

First, they recently received over $2 million from Mohr Davidow Ventures, acquired competitor Schtuff, struck a deal with 30Boxes and unveiled a new point-and-click editor. In other words, they’re surging ahead in a crowded field. (Well, they’re dominating it, with 150,000 users.)

Second, I saw an interesting, and easy-to-apprehend trend piece in their vital relationship with educators. Of their 150,000 users, 30,000 are educators. Wikis are a real pedagogical tool (not just a resource) for educators and their students. PBwiki has an educational advisory board of 50 professionals, has an enthusiastic group of educators who started to give presentations on how to use the product quite independently of the company (though it is now actively encouraged) and stories of the educators’ creative use of wikis, including a collaborative design/build project in New Orleans.

Finally, PBwiki partnered with the United Nations on the “Global Compact.” The Global compact initiative is a collaboration of around 3,000 companies and 700 organizations in over 100 countries to create a voluntary corporate responsibility pledge. PBwiki is providing the collaborative frame work for this undertaking. (Totally awesome? Yuh-huh.)

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Nick Douglas on Valleywag wrote a fine little doodad on how your PR weasel can screw the pooch for you. Always trust the people your pitching to first and the people doing your pitching a distant second. From the article:

Training a flack is like training your entire staff. If your company only employs ten people, a everyone should know enough about everyone else’s job to explain it to me. I’m a journalist, if a fake one, and I want to hear the whole story of the company. Even an intelligent PR person can’t understand the company or its product as well as someone who made it. So why not schedule time for employees to push their own products? As a bonus, they’ll sound more sincere than the flack who was hired just last month.