Opinion: The Game Industry's PR Problem

In a passionate editorial, Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield suggests, from a journalist's perspective, why "public relations in the games industry is a constant source of frustration" -- and suggests some possible remedies for the issue.
[In this editorial, originally published in Game Developer magazine, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield tackles the frustrations of dealing with games industry public relations from a journalist's point of view -- and suggests some possible remedies.] Public relations in the games industry is a constant source of frustration. This is true for me, and for pretty much anyone else writing about games who wants to go above and beyond the normal regurgitation of press releases. I want to preface by saying that this editorial is not an easy one to write. There are a number of people in PR whom I respect, who are good at their jobs, and who are very helpful. I think a large number of established names can feel confident that most of this editorial does not refer directly to them, but there still may be points applicable here. First, why should developers care about their PR? Well, what is said about you reflects on you, and the way in which your products are presented and represented do so as well. In many cases, the brunt of a bad experience will lie with the rep him/herself, but in other cases, it can cause a flustered journalist to simply start ignoring any emails or calls related to that company. I’ve done it, and everyone I know in this industry has done it. Naturally this is something developers want to avoid. I will guess that most developers have not dealt with PR from the journalist’s side, so perhaps this will help you learn a bit about what goes on. The Problems The most frequent problem I see is lack of familiarity with the product, and with games in general. This is more common with external PR, but is also seen internally as well. At this point, we do expect PR people to know less about your game than we do, and especially much less about the developer and its pedigree. This is, of course, because PR and marketing are viewed as universal skill sets. If you can do public relations for soda, snowboards, or watches, you can do it for games -- or so the common wisdom goes. That may be true in other industries, but it’s not true here. As an example, I once asked internal PR for a large game company if the director of the original games was working on the new version. The trick is, I didn’t say “the director,” I said that director’s actual name. The PR person had never heard of the director of this long-running series. To me, that is a problem, and highlights the general lack of interest in games among many PR personnel. If you go up to a film or book publicist and mention the name of a director, an actor, a screenwriter, a novelist, or a graphic novel artist respectively, there is a real good chance they will know who you’re talking about. In games, this would hardly ever happen. Try asking games PR if they’ve heard of Warren Spector, Atsushi Inaba, Fumito Ueda, or Cliff Bleszinski, and see how many blank stares you get. Can you promote something you don’t like, or aren’t truly interested in? Many seem to think so. It makes such a huge difference when the person trying to get a journalist to cover a game actually likes it, and actually plays games outside of work. When this lack of familiarity is combined with badgering, via frequent emails and calls about products I’ve already told someone I’m not able to cover, that’s when I start ignoring people. You don’t want to get to that stage. It is possible to cold-call journalists and have them be receptive -- the PR person just has to initiate a conversation, figure out if it’s a fit, be humble, and not act like this product they don’t actually understand is the new Jesus. We’re All Human The biggest thing that’s been getting to me is the constant lying. Not lying to people strikes me as a basic human courtesy, but lying happens so frequently in my interactions with PR as to cause me to lose respect for the people that do it, and want to deal less with those companies. When I ask a question, and am told “no,” but the answer is really “yes, but I can’t tell you,” that’s a lie. When someone says, “We’re not doing any interviews,” but really means “…with you,” that’s a lie. Just tell me you can’t do an interview with me, because you’re only doing video. It makes your life harder, but at least you’re being honest with me, and you don’t lose my respect. It’s almost impossible to lie to a journalist and have him or her not find out about it when you’re telling another journalist something else, because we all talk to each other! I can’t respect someone who lies to me -- not in any sort of relationship, professional or otherwise. The Setup There are four major types of PR that I see. Internal PR at large companies like Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony is largely designed to keep information away from journalists when it’s requested. They have labyrinthine structures, it’s tough to know if you’re ever speaking to the right person, and once you get there, it’s hard to make them respond. This is compounded by their use of external PR as well, which acts as a further hall of mirrors to keep the journalist from his or her goal. External PR usually knows less about games, employs people who are newer to the job, and generally gets the lower-tier tasks, if employed by a large company. In the case where external PR is a company’s only PR, that’s a much different story, and they wind up working more closely with the client/publisher/developer. Then there’s internal PR at medium-sized developers or publishers. These folks contact you when they have an announcement, try to help you out if they can, or want to, when you come to them with a question, but otherwise are too busy to hassle you. For whatever reason, they tend to be the least frustrating to deal with. The last type is the PR (usually external) for X developer/publisher/peripheral manufacturer you’ve never heard of. These folks tend to work on the periphery – mobile, virtual worlds, and things like that. They will hound you for coverage, which may be effective in some cases, but is tough for a journalist to stomach, especially when combined with a general lack of knowledge of the product, or the journalist’s areas of interest and expertise. Solutions I do have some ideas about how to fix this. I don’t know if there’s any way to stop people from lying -- that may just be a learned trait. But that would be a great thing to eliminate. The number one thing you can do is to keep your PR as educated as possible. Show them your process and introduce them to your leads. Try to get people who actually have an interest in games, and who will read game news because they’re interested in it, not just because it’s their job. We talk about passion a lot in this industry, and rightly so -– it should be ubiquitous, all the way down to your PR. Good PR can really help you. It can get your game noticed, it can get good coverage (though contrary to what some believe, it can not –- or at least should not -– determine review scores), and it can help you build relationships with good journalists. Bad PR can inspire people to ignore your company completely. Let’s make it better.

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