Is it Game Over for traditional PR?
"Definitely yes," says industry veteran Cat Channon, but a more fluid, agile and empowering approach to communications has emerged in its place
At Reboot Develop last week, I gave a talk that I felt addressed a rhetorical question: Is traditional PR dead? Answer: Definitely yes. Long dead. Dead. Buried. And its alcohol-addled liver. Worm food quicker than you can say, "Put it on my tab."
However, the attendance at my talk and the response I have received since the conference suggests that, for some, there is still a question about the status of traditional PR -- and more importantly, if it is game over, then what next?
To be clear, I'm defining 'traditional PR' as the uncomfortably close dynamic between games journalists and video games PR; one that operates in a world where you can buy your way out of trouble, where messaging is massaged into editorial, and marketers can strong-arm the press with ad spend. It is a way of thinking that believes print covers should still lead every campaign, that regards leaks as a time to apportion blame rather than an opportunity to start capturing data or gauging consumer interest, and still treats an IGN exclusive as the answer to every campaign's communication challenge.
"Is traditional PR dead? Answer: Definitely yes. Long dead. Dead. Buried. And its alcohol-addled liver"
All of which exists in a data-, KPI- and ROI-free world often described as a "dark art".
The changing media landscape
As the place of traditional media has shifted, the demise of old school public relations began. Anyone with an internet connection now has the potential to be an opinionated hack. Search-driven page impressions and their associated ad revenues make the writing of most stories a financial equation rather than an editorial one (Fortnite headline anyone...?). Doritogate happened. More channels than ever before have an impact on buying decisions. Influencers aren't easily influenced, and Metacritic moved the needle to such an extent that words became less important than the numbers.
In this dynamic and varied landscape, the strength of consumer voice is greater than it has ever been. It has the ability to independently drive not only the media agenda but -- as evidenced in the discussions around both loot boxes and addiction -- affect the very policies that govern our industry.
PR is dead -- long live communications
So what next? The answer is a communications mix that while fixed in its objectives is entirely fluid and agile. It is about as far from the cookie-cutter, linear news, preview, review plans of old as you can get.
"So what next? The answer is a communications mix that while fixed in its objectives is entirely fluid and agile"
Community, customer support, internal communications, company ethics/values, influencers, social content, events and systemic marketing should all be on the table when you're deciding how you're going to achieve your communications objectives. Whether that's selling games, selling your company, hiring talent, establishing a new IP, getting a publishing deal or funding, each of the aforementioned channels has the potential to have a positive or negative impact on your ability to succeed.
The highs and lows of modern communications
Across the industry there are numerous examples of companies and campaigns that are succeeding and failing in navigating the changing communications landscape, and those focused on traditional media outlets alone are missing more than one trick:
- In 2004, when we launched World of Warcraft, Blizzard knew that community was king, and gave it the same level of consideration as traditional media relations. Blizzard's values drive its decisions, and the player-first approach is as apparent in every piece of external communication today as it was back then. This is exactly why it can implement an entire game system into one of its biggest IPs and take it out again, without a lasting negative impact on the company or brand.
- Tom Francis, a former games journalist turned indie developer, made brilliant use of his personal social media to lead his debut game, Gunpoint, to critical and financial success. By delivering a steady cadence of authentic and informative content, he created a dedicated seed community that drove an audience of fans to purchase:
- Goat Simulator's use of systemic marketing to create hilarious, shareable video content, coupled with an irreverent social campaign and customer service approach. This was a great example of how a blend of channels, and content creation being integral to production, can lead to significant commercial gain.
- Individuals like the Testology founder who failed to recognise that personal opinions and professional ones are indistinguishable, and that values and beliefs expressed on social media can have far reaching business implications.
- Riot, known for having moved almost entirely away from traditional media relations, demonstrated that doing so was to throw out both baby and bathwater. It has left the company with numerous communications challenges around community toxicity, player safety, company values, and a very public spat with its investors addressed in the community forums.
Media relations remain critical
"Coverage and awareness aren't communications objectives; selling games and finding more programmers are"
All that said, mainstream and enthusiast media continues to hold a significant position of impact in both addressing the concerns of the gaming masses and leading the conversation in many vital areas -- for example, coverage of the reality behind the UK tabloids' clickbait headlines. If you think that not working with traditional media is an option for any or every game, or if you think that the press relationships you need can be created at the point you need them, then you do so at your peril.
The massive upside is that while communications professionals have to work harder than ever, everyone now has the ability to make an impact on their business through communications. In deciding what mix is best for your objective, you need to think about where your audience is and go there. Focus first on delivering solid customer support and consistent community engagement -- they are the heartland of your fan base, and often the most common places for a communications crisis to begin.
Navigating this blended approach can be complex, but the key is to be laser focused on what you want to achieve. Coverage and awareness aren't communications objectives; selling games and finding more programmers are. Find the decision makers and people with influence in your audience, look at the content they share, and engage with them in a way that fits with their current behaviour.
Decide what you want, and be very specific. Think about who can help you to achieve it. Get names, go where they are, focus channel by channel. Be real about what you're actually capable of achieving, and be accountable and realistic about your resources. Most importantly, be ready to pivot from your plans if necessary -- be agile.
I for one am happy to see old school PR as a thing of the past, and I hope the industry's perception of the majority of my communications peers as anything other than talented, creative and savvy individuals navigating some of the most challenging aspects of our industry -- often in never-ending crunch -- is gone with it.
Cat Channon worked as a games journalist for nearly a decade before heading up international communications at Vivendi, Take-Two, NCSoft, and most recently Warner Bros. She now runs The Treks, a full service communications consultancy.