The games media and public relations have a symbiotic, yet antagonistic relationship. Both need each other to survive, and both often end up at odds with one another over seemingly trivial things. In the consumer press, journalists need public relations to gain access to games for previews and reviews, and on a trade site like GamesIndustry.biz PR holds the key to those oh-so-important bigwig interviews we like to conduct here on a regular basis.
On the consumer side, journalists are often accused of getting too friendly with PR, and a major concern is that a close relationship could impact a game's review. On the trade side, while we don't have that same concern, what we have in common is that we, too, must put our readers and our audience above all else and we can't let relationships with PR affect our decisions on what stories to run or not to run.
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Just as PR holds the key to access (whether for games or interviews), the media is a gatekeeper for which games, companies and stories ultimately receive the most attention (online influencers on YouTube, etc notwithstanding). Every single editor on this website has an inbox that is flooded daily with press releases, original story pitches, freelance requests or the occasional complaint from PR about something we published.
In the interest of enabling PR to more effectively work with us in the media, I've assembled a list of best practices that will not only help PR but will undoubtedly make communication between media and PR a far smoother and productive experience on both ends.
In no particular order, here are my top tips:
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A little research can go a long, long way
Public relations can be a very tough job. Contacting hundreds of journalists a day, hoping that some will actually want to cover your client's news while monitoring what's written to make sure no inaccuracies start spreading like wildfire across the internet is a big challenge. One way to make it a smoother process - and simultaneously make things better for the media you're pitching - is simply to do a bit of research. All too often, we've received press releases or story pitches from PR that don't fully grasp what our focus is as a publication.
"A carefully constructed pitch that presents a unique industry angle, especially if it's an exclusive, is a very hard pitch for us to resist"
Sometimes this is merely the result of blast mailing to a ton of outlets with the hope that at least a few will stick, but when you're asking a trade site to preview your mobile game about flatulent chickens, don't be surprised if you don't get a reply.
Although it does require further investment of time and energy to understand your targets in the press, what it is exactly that they tend to write about and who their audience is, the research will be enormously helpful to you and make you far more successful at your job while minimizing the annoyance factor to those in the press. A carefully constructed pitch that presents a unique industry angle, especially if it's an exclusive, is a very hard pitch for us to resist. At the same time, we'll remember the next time that you've done your homework as a PR expert and we may be more receptive to future pitches.
Persistence is a good trait... until it's not
Persistence is a double-edged sword. Pushing for something on any job can be a positive, and it can lead to getting what you're looking for. Pushing too hard, though, can lead to a bit of pain. Sending us a pitch multiple times in a day, for example, when it's not relevant to us won't increase its chances of coverage. Yes, we all have busy days and it's entirely possible that sometimes we genuinely do miss something that's been sent our way, but chances are if you haven't heard back from anyone on the team that your press release or pitch is not something that we're going to be able to cover. Moreover, if you send it several more times just to "float back to the top of your inbox" or to say, "Are you interested in this news?" it's only going to make matters worse. Sometimes after repeated emails we receive phone calls to ask us if we'd like to cover said news.
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We want to hear from you, we really do, but at a certain point the persistence can cross a line into distraction as we try to take care of our daily jobs. And, understandably, we get that media can be irritating too. We can and have to be persistent as well if we're asking PR for a reaction on a timely news story or are trying to secure a big interview. The limits of your patience are probably similar to ours. Usually one or two emails or a phone call is as far as it goes if we don't hear a word.
Don't make unreasonable demands
Public relations has a job to do - it's to make their client shine. The company they represent wants, of course, to see nothing but positivity in any stories or interviews that are published. PR's role is to try to present their client in the best possible light and to try to steer the press towards publishing an article that does just that. The problem, however, is that when PR feels the pressure from its client, it sometimes asks things of the press that are simply not going to fly.
"The lesson here is to know who you're putting in front of the press and what level of risk is involved"
It's one thing if a story has been published with a genuine factual error. By all means, contact the journalist immediately and kindly request a correction or clarification on that story. On the other hand, if you simply don't like the tone of a particular article or you disagree with an opinion piece that's been written, you should think twice about demanding that the journalist alter an already published piece to make your company look better. That said, feel free to send us an email explaining your client's side of the issue. Like a head coach arguing a call, you're not looking for a reversal so much as a bit more consideration on the next play. We get that. It can be hard to swallow if it's your client, but sometimes companies receive bad press. The world isn't always going to be "on message" for your brand.
Another demand that's almost certainly going to backfire on you is to ask a journalist to remove a quote. Unless it's been explicitly stated that a conversation is off the record, if your company's executive is speaking to us on the phone, then it's on the record, and we can quote any or all of it, as is needed for a story. It's not the journalist's fault if an executive or developer talking to the press isn't media trained or simply slips up and says something that's not great for the company. PR can try to control the message, but it can't literally edit the message that's already on record.
Years ago, PR for a major publisher was upset with me because an executive (with a reputation for talking earnestly) was quoted as saying something negative about the Wii. The person genuinely bashed the Wii, and it was on the record. For PR, it no doubt was a nightmare - so the lesson here is to know who you're putting in front of the press and what level of risk is involved.
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Embargoes, embargoes, embargoes
Embargoes are a key part of daily correspondence between media and PR. You get to share information in advance, we agree not to publish until said date and time, and we appreciate having a heads-up most of the time so we don't have to scramble to report some of the more major news as it happens. The problem is that embargoes are being used more and more for less and less important news - it effectively becomes a tactic to gain coverage for something that might not ordinarily receive attention.
Not only that, but the timing of the embargoes is often so short as to be practically useless. PR can be effective with embargoes but the press needs time to process and write the stories, especially if an interview is part of that embargo. Considering that many journalists are juggling multiple stories and other responsibilities, 24-48 hours in advance is a bare minimum for an embargo time, and several days or more is ideal.
"PR and media often build up relationships after years of working together... Respect can go out the window, unfortunately, if one of us does something stupid to betray the trust of the other"
Also, keep in mind that most journalists do honor embargoes, but when someone in the media does break an embargo it basically becomes fair game. PR should make a note to themselves about who broke embargo and why, but don't hold it against others in the press should they choose to also publish their stories once the cat is out of the proverbial bag.
Respect is a two-way street
PR and media often build up relationships after years of working together. The companies may change, but the faces are often the same (on both sides). We earn each other's respect by continually working together on stories that hopefully benefit both the audience we serve and the company you represent. Respect can go out the window, unfortunately, if one of us does something stupid to betray the trust of the other. If, for example, I were to routinely break embargoes or publish quotes completely out of context, you'd lose all respect for me as a journalist and probably look to avoid working with me in the future.
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Conversely, if PR promises me an exclusive and then proceeds to back out of it and give that exclusive to one of my competitors, that's a problem. Or if PR demands that we alter a story that's factually correct or to pull it from our site altogether, again that's a problem. If PR refuses to take no for an answer, that's a problem - and remember, coverage is never a guarantee for anyone.
The bottom line is this: we're all human beings. Many of us have kids, spouses, bills, mortgages and tons of responsibilities. We're both trying to do our respective jobs. Respect is something we can all agree is paramount. We should remember that the next time we're thinking of sending off that angry email.