Interview with a PR: the misconceptions and truth of working video game public relations
Games industry PR is full of cold, calculating, manipulative liars, out to spin the story, distort the truth, and shut down any questions that don't line up with the bullet point. They buy writers and slip money under the table. Heck, they may not even know anything about video games.
Or at least, that's what we often want to believe. The truth is a bit more complicated. The Report spoke with Justin Kranzl, Senior PR Manager at Square Enix, about how the relationship between press and PR has changed, and the headaches it causes on both sides of the aisle.
Public image of public relations
Public Relations can be a tricky business. You have to push a product, know how to make it look good – which often means using assets that make a game look better than it actually is – and coordinate business with games press. Think of it like Ghostbusters: the game in question is Gozer the Gozerian, the game's PR is Sigourney Weaver, and the games press is Rick Moranis, asking: “Are you the Gatekeeper??”
When gamers get a peek behind the curtain, more often than not, it isn't pretty. A tweet might not-so-subtly threaten to blacklist press who give reviews full of “venom.” A foolishly arrogant email might snap at a customer, telling them to “put on your big boy hat” and warn that a pre-ordered product will be sold on eBay. Hell, sometimes it can be difficult to draw a line between journalist and PR, which sets in motion a clusterfuck of a whole new level.
The press needs access to upcoming games, as well as the creators behind them, and PR dictates when and how that happens. Interviews, for example, rarely happen without a PR rep on-hand who can jump in and either clarify a statement or shut down a line of questioning. The perception is that in return, the press will write favorably about the game in question. Kranzl said that's never happened to him, however.
“My mantra is: the review is sacrosanct. It’s indulgent and lazy in our role to get butt hurt about someone’s professional opinion. If you can’t abide by the judge’s decision, you probably shouldn’t be playing. I’ve never allowed a negative review to affect a relationship with a media outlet,” he told me. “Although, if the quality of your argument is lacking it likely will affect my perception of your ability or credibility.”
And if there was such a perception? Had Kranzl ever placed caveats on a writer or outlet's future interactions with a game or team? “I think the notion of blacklisting media is pretty short sighted, so no,” Kranzl said. “If someone speaks to a broad audience you’re ultimately not 'punishing' them – there’s always going to be other games to cover – you’re denying the audience a chance for info about your game. It’s not about your ego, it’s about the studio and their work.”
“That said, access to the studio talent is another issue,” Kranzl told the Report. “As PR you want the dev team getting in front of media. However, every media outlet you put in front of them you’re going to need to be accountable for. That’s why staying informed on media – who is writing and about what – is essential for someone in this line of work.”
Kranzl said his major gripes come when minor complaints are held up as major flaws, or criticism isn't constructive. “A title I worked on – and it's not the current one – had a very good PC version, and that was something that Square Enix prided itself on. We just went the route of, 'If you want to review this version that's perfectly okay, just get in touch and we'll send it out ahead of launch.'”
“I had a couple approaches where people were saying, 'I've got really bad performance, I don't know why,' and I have to ask what's the hardware specs, and of course, the video card is like an integrated card from four years ago. It's like, 'Here's a benchmark that I just pulled up from Google that has our minimum card, it's about halfway up the list, and your card isn't even on the list because it's that far down.'”
“It's that kind of stuff you can't… you do not want to be in the position where you have to explain to someone who's worked several years doing crazy hours on a labor of love that X, Y, Z outlet is blasting them for having low PC performance. The first thing they're gonna say is, 'What are they running it on?' and then you have to explain that, A) you're an idiot, and B) next time you want to open them up for media, they're going to be really cautious.”
“One of the things we always strive to do internally is educate our studios and execs to be gracious about media criticism,” Kranzl said. “If it’s an objective, informed critique then our message is a tactful version of 'If you’re willing to accept the good, accept the bad and don’t dismiss it out of hand or let it wreck your day.'”
About those games
I asked Kranzl if he ever worked under what he or others considered a bad game. “Hand on heart,” he told me, “I can say I haven't. My entire PR career at Square Enix has been Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Sleeping Dogs, Tomb Raider. I’ve got no problems celebrating the work of the teams behind them.”
Fair enough. But let's suppose he did find himself assigned to such a title. What then? “Now more than ever, the games market is a pretty brutal, Darwinian place,” Kranzl said. “If, despite my disclaimers, I was in that position, I’d probably look for any positive elements I could find and home in on them and at least try to have some fun with it. One thing I definitely would steer clear of is misrepresenting the game to conceal its faults. I’ve seen it done by others and ultimately that shatters your credibility with fans,” he told me.
Aliens: Colonial Marines faced that problem last month, when a video comparing the demo which debuted at E3 against actual game play showed just how far the title had fallen. Jim Sterling devoted an episode of his Jimquisition to the subject, and he was very clear about how he felt: “I'm pissed off because I feel lied to, at every step of the way,” Sterling said in his video. “The sheer fucking nerve of publishers though, to embellish or hide, even the little things.”
“These people are liars,” Sterling said. “They're liars, and it's gotta stop.”
Kranzl, for what it's worth, seems to be a proponent of quality. He's proud of the teams he's worked with and the games he's promoted, and he told me that, if push came to shove, he would be warning executives about what releasing a game in poor shape would do to company image. In the end, protecting image is his job, and that job continues post-release.
Ben commented last week about leaks, the proverbial wrenches in the motor of a game's PR push cycle. “The best response from a publisher would be loosening restrictions once this sort of information is released, allowing the press to confirm its validity, inform readers of when the features will be going up, and the whole thing becomes a non-issue,” he wrote.
I asked Kranzl what his operating procedure was in regards to leaks and controlling loose information. “It’s situational. There’s no pro forma action plan when it happens,” he told me. “Where we’re trying to get is making sure the studio and publisher hierarchy understands these things can happen and that it rarely, if ever, is the end of the world. We’re not saving lives here after all – we’re marketing games.”
“The exception to the rule is when these kind of breaks impact the consumer’s experience,” Kranzl said. He explained that prior to Tuesday, the team was focused on preventing any spoilers for the Tomb Raider reboot, and that included asking journalists not to share specific information about the plot. “I understand the urge to be 'first' in media and I can handle the flak from media outlets who feel slighted, but my priority is to protect years of hard work and the gamer’s experience.”
“Having someone spoil the story or reveal the ending isn’t journalism in my book. It moves media’s function from information and analysis to something a lot more obnoxious and self-serving.”
Ticket to ride
In this business, the perception of impropriety can be just as damaging as actually being corrupt, and transparency is important. It's one of the reasons we put a disclaimer on articles where a publisher – or PR firm, or whomever – has paid for travel. Some outlets go a step further, and refuse to accept paid travel or accommodations.
Kranzl described the situation as almost the exact opposite of the industry just less than two decades ago. “In the past, it was perfectly par for the course to throw a lavish junket that wasn't necessarily related to the game or, if it was related to the game, it was only under the faintest of pretexts. This is just my personal opinion, I'm not a believer in that. I tend to think the climate has changed away from that.”
Kranzl recalled reading a newspaper article from that era that detailed the trips and lavish press junkets one games writer had experienced. “It really highlighted the gulf that exists between what the consumer expects of their media and what was actually occurring,” he told me. Kranzl said he cautions his peers against going back to those days. “That stuff has got an increasingly shrinking lifespan,” he said. “I think a lot of PR have realized opening up access, or at least championing access to the dev team, getting access to the code is a lot more important than the bells and whistles. If I've got a jet ski game, I don't think we need to go sending everyone to run around and wave race to get the point across that it's a fun game.”
I jokingly suggested Square Enix should have dropped a group of journalists in the wilderness with only a bow to promote Tomb Raider. He sighed. “I'm sure someone, somewhere out there would've thought that was a great idea.”
There is a catch to the increasingly independent relationship between games press and PR, Kranzl said. When an outlet has to choose and budget for its own travel, it's likely to pick only the big-name titles that are guaranteed to generate hits.
Multi-million dollar budget games have PR departments to represent them, and indie developers often act as their own PR, emailing every journalist whose contact info they can find, but the middle-tier titles suffer, and the two ends of the spectrum become even more extreme.
“You could say the industry has shot itself in the foot in that respect,” Kranzl said. “The pendulum has swung so far back the other way that outlets feel compelled, that they have to take it away completely to avoid any stigma. I don't think it needs to be that crazy because, what happens if you're working on a title that doesn't have the sort of pull of like a AAA franchise and you're wanting to get the big magazines to take a look at it?”
“More often than not, they're going to think they can spend their money more intelligently in other avenues. So it's one of those things that, because it's become very puritanical because of the excesses of the past, it's almost as bad as the junketeering.”
I asked Kranzl who he felt responsible to at the end of the day: gamers, publishers, press, or developers. He said the focus can be “schizophrenic.”