The Soapbox: The horror of embargoes

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|12.24.13

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The Soapbox: The horror of embargoes
My Little Pony gets a gritty, realistic reboot.
We're right on the cusp of one big holiday or another. Festivus, I think? I don't really pay attention to the calendar. So we're going to take this opportunity to talk about something near and dear to our hearts that a lot of you don't even know exists because you aren't working here. It's the magical miracle known as the press embargo.

Embargoes work something like this. Let's say that Bungie is hard at work developing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Online, and the company wants to reveal a new piece of information on August 9th. The company sends a lot of different press outlets a release with all of the information on August 2nd, mentioning exactly when the embargo lifts. So on August 9th, everyone can cover it at the same time!

It sounds like a great way to ensure that the press knows things in advance and that every big revelation is nicely coordinated across all media. In practice, though, it's something less than beneficial due to failures to communicate and the very nature of the beast. Giving more time between the information and release just means more space for things to go wrong.

Ooh, spooky, the... um... is this supposed to be spooky?  We need to redo this if it's not the spooky holiday.Not hard work

So let's say you're a game journalist again for a moment when this new information about Friendship is Magic Online hits your inbox. You blearily stand up from your room-sized waterbed, moving through the dense sea of undressed models also sleeping on the bed, and use your DARPA-funded supercomputer to access this new information. Now you have an entire week to prepare a piece on what led Twilight Sparkle to found the Paramilitary Omnifunction National Army and discuss the associated game mechanics.

Of course, what you've actually been told is about three paragraphs and you aren't getting to actually see any of the mechanics in action, but it's assumed that you need time to fully explain all of this information.

I'm not saying this is never interesting; I'm saying that an embargo can be sent much further in advance than is beneficial, which moves your job from talking about game information to playing an elaborate game of jinx in which you know something new but can't tell anyone else about what you know. Mention the embargoed information accidentally in the middle of discussing anything else, and bam! You've broken the embargo.

This is only a problem, of course, if you're trying not to break the embargo. But surely no one would just ignore the embargo, right?

"But after the fifth time it was clear that most of them were just making fun of what I had, in an anecdote I hope does not get pulled from the final version of this column."

Sometimes people will just ignore the embargo

Yep. Sometimes you'll have your piece on FiMO all ready to go on August 9th, and that's great, but someone else trips his piece live on August 7th, which means that all of that information is out in the world already, and you can either put what you wrote live early (which means you're breaking the embargo as well) or you can wait (in which case everyone is going to wonder why you didn't cover this already).

If the site that breaks the embargo is big enough, this sort of thing can be done with impunity. There's an odd back-and-forth with public relations companies and game journalists because we don't work for them and don't have to like them, but we both rely on each other to an extent to do our jobs. Make PR angry enough, and you can say goodbye to ever having exclusive content from the developer (which matters if you rely heavily on exclusive content in the first place). Breaking an embargo should make a PR representative pretty angry... but giving nothing to a big enough site is cutting off a source of publicity.

You might be saying that surely no company would be vindictive enough to punish a smaller site for breaking an embargo after a bigger site already broke it without repercussions. To which I say, sure. Let's go with your version of events. I like that world better anyway.

This trick also has a lovely cousin, which is giving Site A an earlier embargo than Site B. In fact, this one is even worse because it means that not only did Site A post the news early, it was technically all right for them but not for you. So there is literally no way for you to avoid either making PR angry or making your readers angry because you haven't posted something.

It's at times like this that all the waterbeds and DARPA supercomputers in the world can't make you feel better.

Eliot, I'm confused.  Why did you have a photo of a drum kit here?  It doesn't tie into any part of the article.  Please replace this alt text and probably the photo by 12/20. -BRWait, this was your embargo...

Let's leave all of that to one side for a minute, though, because all of this assumes that everything sent along in the first place is complete and accurate. Of course, surely PR would double-check all of that first, right? If you're told that a video will be up at this time and date, you can reliably expect to link to it, yes?

Again, let's go with that version of events.

In fairness, this is frequently not the fault of PR. The people who communicate with journalists are not the same as the people responsible for turning on videos or setting a web page to live or making a new thing available in the in-game store. But you'd still think that all of this got coordinated in enough time to make sure that when this big embargo finally breaks, the associated information is actually accessible for everyone.

The takeaway

You might think that this is mostly just a rant about how difficult my job is. That is a fair assessment. But consider this for a moment: Who actually benefits from these embargoes?

It's not journalists, and it's not you. It's largely the game companies in question who get to ensure that everyone is talking about the same news at the same time across all possible sites, and to a lesser extent print publications that simply can't update at the same pace. The whole thing is a way of keeping things under wraps for longer even though it has no actual benefit for you.

Sweet dreams.

...wait, is this the holiday when you're supposed to be scared? I can't remember. The point is that embargoes are kind of silly, anyway.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared across the staff. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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