Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

What scientific journals and societies can learn from Steve Buttry’s handling of the TBD launch

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It must be Transparency Week here at Embargo Watch.

Yesterday, PNAS editor in chief Randy Schekman bared nearly all in an editorial about a study of a potential link between viruses and chronic fatigue syndrome, explaining why the study had been held for publication for some weeks despite pressure.

Also yesterday, in an exhaustively detailed post, TBD director of community engagement Steve Buttry told the story of how the new website and TV station dedicated to news and community information for the Washington, DC area handled getting press attention for its launch. The post is remarkable for its transparency and play-by-play analysis, and should be required reading for all PR pros managing a launch.

What particularly caught my attention after Denise Graveline tipped me off to the post was this paragraph:

We briefly discussed whether to embargo the preview and decided that would be foolish. Embargoes are a relic of the pre-web days. They are awkward to suggest and difficult to enforce in today’s media, and are especially out of place for an organization trying to be transparent. An embargo makes journalists feel as though you’re trying to manipulate and control them, and that can backfire (all of which, as journalists, we knew). We decided to invite people to use the preview however they wished: to provide advance coverage of the launch, to cover the launch itself or both.

“The preview” refers to an August 6 presentation Buttry and his colleagues had planned for journalists before TBD launched on a then-secret date of August 9.

Mashable came to Washington for its SummerMash tour on Thursday, Aug. 5, and I asked Vadim Lavrusik, who had blogged about me several times before, if he’d be interested in the first preview. He said yes. We worried that Vadim might dampen some interest of other media if he blogged about us immediately. But we didn’t want to embargo the preview and coverage of TBD had been pretty heavy even before we approached launch. It was never like this story was going to be an exclusive. Then Vadim decided on his own to write his post for Monday, so the Friday previews would provide the first coverage.

Buttry also describes the mishaps. For example, he writes about the involvement of the TBD Community Network:

Another PR gaffe of the preview came when one of the bloggers in our local network reacted to the DCist coverage of the preview as a “scoop” we had provided to a blog that wasn’t in the network. It was an innocent mistake. While we certainly thought of ourselves as worthy of media attention, we didn’t really consider our preview to be a scoop. Two other non-network local blogs that we invited didn’t even show up for the preview (though both did blog about the launch). Much of the preview was overview of TBD that we had already shared with the network and that some of them had already blogged about. We thought the preview even closer to launch, tailored for the network, would have greater value to members. But we did disclose at the media preview that we would be launching the next week, and that had some news value, and we showed off some site features we had not previously told network members about. And even this PR rookie knew that if you have to explain a decision to someone who’s critical, you’re already in damage control.

I also overlooked the Associated Press in my initial invitations. Though I invited AP to the Sunday briefing for the network, they didn’t come and we didn’t get AP coverage, which was my fault.

TBD gave part of the launch story — namely the likely launch date — to the Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers so Myers could arrange travel from St. Petersburg, Florida. But it’s not as though they asked everyone else to agree to an embargo on the date without telling them Myers had the exclusive, as some government agencies seem to like to do. After all, there was no embargo.

And Buttry acknowledges that learned just how hard it is to manage something that is technically publicly available, even it’s not officially launched:

Actually, much of the site was live a few days before launch. While we kept our pre-launch blog on tbd.com, the rest of the pages of the site went live so we could test pages and features, identify bugs and solve the problems and start aggregating content for the launch. The home page was on a different URL, but everything else was on its actual URL: tbd.com/sports and so on. Staff members were under strict instructions not to click external links, but there was an occasional slip. Clicking such a link makes your site show up on the analytics of the blog or site you link to (I routinely check my incoming links and would have quickly noticed a link from a new site, such as TBD).

Such a link apparently triggered a happy tweet from a member of our TBD Community Network, who found herself linked on the home page. We quickly huddled and discussed whether we could take the whole site behind a firewall and continue testing (not effectively). We messaged the blogger, explaining that we were still testing and she kindly deleted the tweet (thanks, you know who you are). But we got our first complaint, an email from a member of the network who was not yet in the network directory (as I explained last week, we are still completing the directory). She had seen the tweet, but apparently few others did.

But by the night of Sunday, Aug. 8, Google was crawling the site, so we knew we would be showing up in search results soon. And a few others were clicking on our pages. So we lifted the curtain, placed the home page on tbd.com, and popped open the champagne.

That’s the one place I might raise my eyebrows from an embargo perspective. It’s a very mild version of “publicly available but embargoed.” At the same time, from what I can gather, TBD Community Network members are more “members of the family” than reporters covering it. So this was different from, say, a journal threatening to punish a reporter with six months of no embargoed access for an errant tweet.

If anything, that just bolsters my point about Buttry’s transparency, which, as I’ve noted, is really quite remarkable. But it’s more than that. Take note of what Buttry did:

  • He explained the rationale for the policy: Coverage, plain and simple — and he seemed quite willing to take the good with the bad — of TBD’s launch.
  • He didn’t put any ridiculous restrictions on what reporters could do with the information they gleaned at the preview, or afterward.
  • Unlike scientific journals that claim their embargo policy is in place to help reporters do a better job and then send out studies embargoed for 65 minutes, TBD thought through what would actually help reporters, and created a plan accordingly.
  • Once the launch happened, he wrote a detailed and honest post about TBD’s thought process and execution, as well as what went right and what went wrong. He even took responsibility.

Recently, I’ve started getting calls from PR agencies and those who cover PR, asking for my thoughts on embargo policies. One of those calls led to a blog post this week at Canale Communications’ Primary Endpoint blog. Its headline, “It takes more than an embargo to land a story,” suggests another lesson from the TBD launch: If you’ve got a good story, reporters will cover it even if there’s no embargo. And if you don’t have a good story, well, an embargo isn’t going to help you.

From now on, when I get similar calls, I’ll more than likely send them to Buttry’s post. After all, even with some good-natured ribbing from FishBowlDC, the plan worked for TBD:

Even with those mistakes, the initial coverage of the preview was mostly positive (links below), and we were largely pleased with the tone, volume and play.

As Buttry noted:

Seeing the different perspectives on our work was an interesting experience. I have long believed that every journalist should experience being the topic of journalism. I have had that experience before, but had not been the one pitching for media coverage. All in all, I’m glad I did it and glad it resulted in good coverage of our launch, but I prefer being the one with the notebook.

If science journals and societies would work like this, I might have to retire Embargo Watch. Somehow, based on the response of many press officers to Embargo Watch queries, I very much doubt that will happen anytime soon.

In honor of Embargo Watch Transparency Week, we’re offering an a la carte menu of any Embargo Watch post paired with any Retraction Watch post for the low price of…free. Click away to your heart’s content.

Written by Ivan Oransky

August 24, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Ivan, fascinating post! Steve Buttry was just added to the speaker’s lineup for the National Association of Science Writers’ workshops on Nov. 6, so if you’d like to hear about his experiences with TBD.com firsthand, here’s your chance. Check out: wwws.sciencewriters2010.org.

    Nancy Shute

    August 24, 2010 at 4:09 pm

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