Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Embargoes: The first of many rants

I've been calling a certain stealthy startup company for months, asking to talk to the CEO, asking for access so I could do an in-depth story. The company had limited — and extremely technical — information on its website. Meanwhile, financial filings kept popping up showing that this company had raised more than $100 million dollars.

Finally, I got a call from a PR firm who scheduled an interview with the CEO if I agreed to embargo that interview until Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. I RELUCTANTLY agreed because I knew the other reporters I compete with would also agree and I didn't want to miss the opportunity.

But the day before my interview, I attended an event with 300 or so members of the public, where the company's lead investor stood on stage and gave away a few choice details about what the stealth company was planning — noting that the company would be "officially launched" the following week.

As a journalist, it is my ethical responsibility to report the news — and this was news. It's also what my bosses pay me to do.

The embargo I agreed to only bound me to not report what the CEO told me until a certain date. I hadn't talked to him yet, so there was no breach of that embargo when my story came out the day before our scheduled interview.

Of course, I never got my interview.

The PR people called, grilling me about how I got that news.

Then they emailed me that night saying the following:
As a matter of formality, I do have to ask if you can guarantee that you'll hold the embargo around any information you get from [CEO] tomorrow. We would like to keep all information about [company]  embargoed until February 7th at 4:30pm PST. Can you confirm that you will not print any additional coverage on [company] until then?
This last request, that I not publish any news about a company, regardless of where I heard it, is deeply offensive to me and to my profession. I did not agree to that embargo. And sure enough I got another email the next morning:

I'm sorry for the last minute notice, but [CEO] had some last minute scheduling conflicts and won't be available for the interview today. I'll get back to you about rescheduling when I have more info on his updated schedule.
I emailed the firm saying I hope it had nothing to do with the fact that I reported news made available in a public setting. They assured me that, no no, that had nothing to do with it.

But then they never did reschedule my interview.instead, after the embargo, and after I requested an explanation for why my interview wasn't rescheduled I got a note. The PR firm said they tried but the CEO was busy - though not too busy to give interviews with at LEAST a dozen other reporters - and added this.

Also, given the sensitive timing of your last piece it was very difficult to get them to prioritize this interview. We did try our best to get you in.

What I want to tell this person is that as a public relations specialist, it should be her job to explain to a CEO why it might be good to have relationships with good, ethical, accurate reporters who don't wait for news to be spoon-fed to them. I want her to defend the free press while noting that its the good and fair journalists who have the largest following among rational and interested people - people who value the objectivity lacking in so many media outlets today. I rationally do not expect this. 

Instead, I have to feel good that I did my job well, then stood my ground, even if it meant getting blacklisted by this company. 

But I don't think I'll be agreeing to any more embargoes. 

Pitch Fix: Telling reporters they can't write ANYTHING about your client is overstepping the intent of the embargo, and no self-respecting reporter would agree to that. Don't do it.

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