Michael Arrington of TechCrunch Pitches a Tantrum Over Press Release Embargoes

TechCrunch, the Michael Arrington-led blog about all things Web 2.0, has declared “Death to the Embargo.”

In what amounts to a temper tantrum by a frustrated, jealous child, Arrington has announced that “from now on, our new policy is to break every embargo. We’ll happily agree to whatever you ask of us, and then we’ll just do whatever we feel like right after that.”

Why TechCrunch is Pouting

Here, in a nutshell, is how PR works: A PR agency, on behalf of a client, pitches a story to a publication. In some cases, the agency places an embargo on the story — essentially, a request to the publisher to hold the story until a certain date/time, usually for strategic reasons.

In the past, most publishers honored these embargoes. But with the rise of blogger journalists, there are more players, more competitors, and more pressure to be first.

TechCrunch’s hissy fit boils down to this: They’re getting scooped by other bloggers, and they’re jealous.

TechCrunch’s Response is Childish

Arrington’s response to a legitimate (if irrelevant) gripe is childish. Other bloggers scoop your publication by breaking embargoes, so you fire off a big “F you!” to the PR industry? Why not just cross your arms and stick out your tongue?

Arrington realizes he’s the big fish — the publication every up-and-coming tech firm wants coverage from. Rather than working with PR firms and their clients on this “problem,” TechCrunch is taking a defiant, adversarial approach. That’s not leadership — it’s bullying.

Breaking the rules because everyone else is breaking them is a pretty passive-aggressive response. TechCrunch is missing a golden opportunity to leverage its position as a key player in the publishing industry to lead a constructive dialogue on PR and journalism. Such a display of maturity would go a long way toward giving Web 2.0 mainstream credibility and giving Arrington a seat at the big boy table.

Who is Michael Arrington Mad At?

It’s not clear from his rant who Michael Arrington is really mad at. Is he mad at bloggers for scooping him? Is he mad at PR agencies for imposing embargoes, or for not enforcing them? Or for not giving him exclusives? Or for pestering him to write stories (which, by the way, is what PR agencies have done for ages)?

Or is he just mad at himself for losing ground to no-name bloggers?

What, really, is his protest about? Arrington declares “death to embargoes,” but his diatribe opens with a rant wholly unrelated to embargoes:

Tech companies are desperate for press and [are] hammering their PR firms for coverage on blogs and major media sites. That in turn means that PR firms hammer us to get us to write about their clients. Gone are the days of polite pitches and actual relationship building. Today, PR firms email a story to us as many as 20 times, and call every TechCrunch writer on their cell phones repeatedly.

Guess what, dude: That’s the price you pay for being popular. You’ve built the most popular technology blog on the Web and you’ve amassed a killer audience. People are gonna hound you to write about them. Get used to it — it comes with the territory.

What Arrington seems to forget is that TechCrunch would be nothing if it weren’t for tech companies and their PR reps giving him inside dish when he was just a scrawny start-up.

End Result: Yawn.

Of course, as countless TechCrunch readers point out in the comments on the post, all of this is irrelevant. TechCrunch will still write stories about tech firms. PR agencies will keep fighting to get their clients publicity. Net change = 0.

No, that’s not totally true. There is one change: Tech companies, PR firms, and readers now see TechCrunch for what it is — an overgrown toddler with hurt feelings.

You’re a big-time publisher, Arrington. Stop pouting and starting acting like one.

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com DavidGriner

    It was strange to pick embargoes as his crusade. If I were a smaller upstart tech site, I'd be more inclined to get ticked at people who broke embargoes. But does it really hurt the more trusted blogs? Nah. People are still going to go to the site they trust most to get the skinny.

    Despite Arrington's juvenile backlash, I don't think you should be so quick to shrug off TechCrunch's overall frustration with PR folks. It really has gotten out of control as more and more people flood the market of digital PR. Lately I've noticed a storm brewing across different parts of the blogosphere as people get fed up with pushy, relentless or just plain moronic flacks.

    I feel strongly that PR is at a crossroads. People are using old-school techniques (long press releases, spray-and-pray distribution, minimal attempts at personalization) to approach a new-school group of publishers. This is creating more and more friction on both sides, and it won't get better until the industry learns to adapt in earnest.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    You're right, David: PR is at a crossroads. And I think many (most?) people in the PR and media/publishing industries recognize that.

    I just commented on Brian Solis's post on this topic. That friction you speak of is to be expected. We need to do a better job dealing with it. We need the 2.0-school of PR and media professionals to come together and find better ways of engaging and educating “old school” practitioners about the evolving nature of our business.

  • http://www.asgideajournal.wordpress.com Rebecca Rose

    A few thoughts… Embargoed information is usually given to select media so they can build a bigger and better story AND be the first out with it. The concept is that if you give them the information in advance, they can digest it, ask questions, get interviews and create something more dynamic than would come from a simple press release sent to them (which admittedly they hate being bombarded with anyway, right?). So therefore, the larger and more respected outlets should advocate and support embargos so they get this information. If they don't, then they better be prepared to always have their best writer ready to scramble the story together so they can get it out on time.

    I understand the frustration of bloggers being bombarded with information, but if you're among the most desirable media then I agree that you just have to accept it comes with the territory. Just as there are crap bloggers, there are crap PR people. However, many of us really strive NOT to be a “hack” and truly provide good information that your readers want in a time frame that will allow you to make it into something special. So, I second the idea of not burning your bridges there because your competition might take the other route and their story will likely be up first and better. Then who will be the trusted resource?

  • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

    I think another thing that Arrington forgets (even though he mentions it in his post) is that many PR agencies are under pressure from their clients to keep hitting the media for results, despite recommendations to the contrary from the agency itself.

    As the owner of my own boutique agency, I know there are bad PR companies and professionals as much as there are good ones. However, a carte blanche approach like the one Arrington advocates won't solve the issue.

    Like you say, Scott, instead of throwing the pram out why doesn't he work with the tech PR crowd to come to an amiable solution?

    Although I do think it's karmic justice for the amount of times TechCrunch has broken embargoes in the past… ;-)

  • http://www.telesian.com Sharilee

    I understand, Scott. Michael is having a childish fit. But I'm going to come down on the side of TechCrunch. I understand why he's doing it. I've been in the PR biz for 25 years. The best coverage happens when you build relationships. If companies are pitching embargoed information to TechCrunch, then they need to honor those embargoes themselves. If they aren't, then Michael and crew should do what editors have done for years…ignore the agencies that don't play by the rules.

    I think the big problem is that the pr industry is no longer teaching the rules of engagement to its players. The editors are our customers. If we don't treat them with respect and consideration, then why should they bother giving us coverage in their media? Yes, the tools are changing and it's easier than ever to spam editors. But it's not the right thing to do. Never was, never will be. If you have an urge to spam, post to the newswires.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Good points, Sharilee, and thanks for weighing in.

    The more I think about it, the more reasons I find to object to Arrington's post. And here's the biggie: He flat out says “We'll give you our word, then break our promise whenever we damn well please.” (paraphrased).

    That crosses the line into ethical bankruptcy. I hope Arrington's financiers remember those words when he promises to repay his loans, or that his business partners remember them when he brokers new business deals.

    Yes, absolutely the PR industry needs to evolve. And it's happening. Maybe not fast enough for Michael Arrington, but it's happening nonetheless.

    There will always be tension between the media and the PR reps — as there should be. But that tension should be a healthy tension.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    As a former journalist, I feel your frustration Dave. I went to school to be a journalist (print, specifically), and I know how real the pressure is to tell good stories and to be the first.

    I DO have a problem with embargoes. If a PR man ever brought me a story and told me to hold it, I'd remind him that I make a living breaking news, not being a shill for his clients.

    Still, I don't think the answer is to declare war on the entire PR industry. Michael Arrington WILL be a catalyst for change in the PR sector, especially in light of this discussion. But being a catalyst is nothing special. He had a chance here to be a leader, and I think he's missing a great opportunity.

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com DavidGriner

    It was strange to pick embargoes as his crusade. If I were a smaller upstart tech site, I'd be more inclined to get ticked at people who broke embargoes. But does it really hurt the more trusted blogs? Nah. People are still going to go to the site they trust most to get the skinny.

    Despite Arrington's juvenile backlash, I don't think you should be so quick to shrug off TechCrunch's overall frustration with PR folks. It really has gotten out of control as more and more people flood the market of digital PR. Lately I've noticed a storm brewing across different parts of the blogosphere as people get fed up with pushy, relentless or just plain moronic flacks.

    I feel strongly that PR is at a crossroads. People are using old-school techniques (long press releases, spray-and-pray distribution, minimal attempts at personalization) to approach a new-school group of publishers. This is creating more and more friction on both sides, and it won't get better until the industry learns to adapt in earnest.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    You're right, David: PR is at a crossroads. And I think many (most?) people in the PR and media/publishing industries recognize that.

    I just commented on Brian Solis's post on this topic. That friction you speak of is to be expected. We need to do a better job dealing with it. We need the 2.0-school of PR and media professionals to come together and find better ways of engaging and educating “old school” practitioners about the evolving nature of our business.

  • http://www.asgideajournal.wordpress.com Rebecca Rose

    A few thoughts… Embargoed information is usually given to select media so they can build a bigger and better story AND be the first out with it. The concept is that if you give them the information in advance, they can digest it, ask questions, get interviews and create something more dynamic than would come from a simple press release sent to them (which admittedly they hate being bombarded with anyway, right?). So therefore, the larger and more respected outlets should advocate and support embargos so they get this information. If they don't, then they better be prepared to always have their best writer ready to scramble the story together so they can get it out on time.

    I understand the frustration of bloggers being bombarded with information, but if you're among the most desirable media then I agree that you just have to accept it comes with the territory. Just as there are crap bloggers, there are crap PR people. However, many of us really strive NOT to be a “hack” and truly provide good information that your readers want in a time frame that will allow you to make it into something special. So, I second the idea of not burning your bridges there because your competition might take the other route and their story will likely be up first and better. Then who will be the trusted resource?

  • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

    I think another thing that Arrington forgets (even though he mentions it in his post) is that many PR agencies are under pressure from their clients to keep hitting the media for results, despite recommendations to the contrary from the agency itself.

    As the owner of my own boutique agency, I know there are bad PR companies and professionals as much as there are good ones. However, a carte blanche approach like the one Arrington advocates won't solve the issue.

    Like you say, Scott, instead of throwing the pram out why doesn't he work with the tech PR crowd to come to an amiable solution?

    Although I do think it's karmic justice for the amount of times TechCrunch has broken embargoes in the past… ;-)

  • http://www.telesian.com Sharilee

    I understand, Scott. Michael is having a childish fit. But I'm going to come down on the side of TechCrunch. I understand why he's doing it. I've been in the PR biz for 25 years. The best coverage happens when you build relationships. If companies are pitching embargoed information to TechCrunch, then they need to honor those embargoes themselves. If they aren't, then Michael and crew should do what editors have done for years…ignore the agencies that don't play by the rules.

    I think the big problem is that the pr industry is no longer teaching the rules of engagement to its players. The editors are our customers. If we don't treat them with respect and consideration, then why should they bother giving us coverage in their media? Yes, the tools are changing and it's easier than ever to spam editors. But it's not the right thing to do. Never was, never will be. If you have an urge to spam, post to the newswires.

  • http://blogs.cars.com Dave T

    Here's what you don't get: Writing is a job.
    We're paid to write. So when PR folks make our jobs HARDER by putting embargoes on stories, usually at ridiculous times/days (I work in the automotive field and they're almost always midnight), and you work to put something together and planned to go at the embargo and then some yahoo breaks it at another bad time, you miss out. You lose traffic = money. Why? because someone else broke the rules? Then doesn't get punished or looked down upon by the industry? Yeah, sounds great to me.

    In the auto biz we see embargoes broken all the time, except it is by big sites looking to add pageviews and buzz about themselves. Not little fish looking to make a name.

    PR people in the automotive realm aren't aggressive either. You have to go to them for the most part to get information. Even for big publications like mine. Anyway, I don't think it's wise for a PR professional to try and get even more argumentative over this topic. If you disagree I would think you could do it more diplomatically.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Good points, Sharilee, and thanks for weighing in.

    The more I think about it, the more reasons I find to object to Arrington's post. And here's the biggie: He flat out says “We'll give you our word, then break our promise whenever we damn well please.” (paraphrased).

    That crosses the line into ethical bankruptcy. I hope Arrington's financiers remember those words when he promises to repay his loans, or that his business partners remember them when he brokers new business deals.

    Yes, absolutely the PR industry needs to evolve. And it's happening. Maybe not fast enough for Michael Arrington, but it's happening nonetheless.

    There will always be tension between the media and the PR reps — as there should be. But that tension should be a healthy tension.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    As a former journalist, I feel your frustration Dave. I went to school to be a journalist (print, specifically), and I know how real the pressure is to tell good stories and to be the first.

    I DO have a problem with embargoes. If a PR man ever brought me a story and told me to hold it, I'd remind him that I make a living breaking news, not being a shill for his clients.

    Still, I don't think the answer is to declare war on the entire PR industry. Michael Arrington WILL be a catalyst for change in the PR sector, especially in light of this discussion. But being a catalyst is nothing special. He had a chance here to be a leader, and I think he's missing a great opportunity.

  • http://agoodhusband.net cory huff

    And making fun of Michael Arrington is a sure way to get yourself embargoed from TechCrunch – ;)

    I don't know much about the journalism/PR world, but it seems that bloggers are throwing fits about PR people on a regular basis (myself included) and things are quickly evolving into an adversarial relationship. The smart journalists/flacks will survive.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Luckily, being blacklisted by TechCrunch doesn't bother me much. At least one of us will still have our integrity ;)

    You're absolutely right about the growing animosity between PRs and journobloggers. That might not be a bad thing. Journalists SHOULD be more skeptical, although a more collegial tone wouldn't hurt.

  • http://agoodhusband.net cory huff

    And making fun of Michael Arrington is a sure way to get yourself embargoed from TechCrunch – ;)

    I don't know much about the journalism/PR world, but it seems that bloggers are throwing fits about PR people on a regular basis (myself included) and things are quickly evolving into an adversarial relationship. The smart journalists/flacks will survive.

  • http://agoodhusband.net cory huff

    And making fun of Michael Arrington is a sure way to get yourself embargoed from TechCrunch – ;)

    I don't know much about the journalism/PR world, but it seems that bloggers are throwing fits about PR people on a regular basis (myself included) and things are quickly evolving into an adversarial relationship. The smart journalists/flacks will survive.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Luckily, being blacklisted by TechCrunch doesn't bother me much. At least one of us will still have our integrity ;)

    You're absolutely right about the growing animosity between PRs and journobloggers. That might not be a bad thing. Journalists SHOULD be more skeptical, although a more collegial tone wouldn't hurt.

    For a great perspective on this, check out the post by the Wall St. Journal's Kara Swisher.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Luckily, being blacklisted by TechCrunch doesn't bother me much. At least one of us will still have our integrity ;)

    You're absolutely right about the growing animosity between PRs and journobloggers. That might not be a bad thing. Journalists SHOULD be more skeptical, although a more collegial tone wouldn't hurt.

    For a great perspective on this, check out the post by the Wall St. Journal's Kara Swisher.