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The subtle art of crisis management

From epic crunch to 8chan AMAs, the games industry is never far from a scandal -- but PR professionals face many challenges when reacting to calamity

Every time a high-profile corporate mistake crops up in games media, the flurry of reports are usually followed by statements from the studios involved. At other times, however, it's also followed by deafening silence.

Take, for instance, the reports of mandatory crunch at Epic Games on Fortnite, the gaming phenomenon that brings in millions of dollars each day. That period placed apparently huge stress on many employees and contractors, but Epic was conspicuously silent on the matter -- aside from a brief statement on remedying the "incredibly rare" occurrences of 100-hour work weeks.

Instead, it was essentially business as usual in the days that followed; Epic went ahead with the planned release of an Avengers crossover event in Fortnite, and CEO Tim Sweeney issued an ultimatum to Steam on Twitter, declaring that Epic would stop pursuing exclusives if Valve committed to a permanent 88% revenue share for developers and publishers.

"I had entire sections dedicated to everything that could potentially go wrong. I never see that in games, or have it asked of me"

Epic's response to the crunch issue was somewhat flippant, and speaks to a lack of consistency among games companies when dealing with moments of crisis -- this was the verdict of a number of PR practitioners I spoke to, who moved into games after learning their trade in other industries.

"I'm a little shocked by the lack of standard practices, which I learned while working on my degree and in my former job [in another industry]," said one person, Amanda, who requested anonymity in order to speak openly on the matter.

In her PR work before switching to games, "I wrote literal books on what I would be doing, laid out step by step, with a month or so's worth of research going into a campaign. I had entire sections dedicated to everything that could potentially go wrong. I never see that [when I'm working] in games, or have it asked of me."

While the backlash to Epic's crunch was swift -- largely due to the fact that it was far from the only studio enforcing harsh working conditions -- the response was far better than that which followed THQ Nordic's PR calamity in February. The publisher hosted an ill-advised Reddit "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) session on 8chan, a site associated with the full gamut of controversial, even illegal content -- from child pornography to hate speech.

Epic responded to accusations of crunch at its company by carrying on as usual

In response, PR and marketing director Philipp Brock told that he erroneously agreed to the session without carrying out "proper due diligence to understand the history and controversy of the site."

"It seems that this move [by THQ Nordic] is a very scattershot approach," said Selena Sheikh, a freelance public relations (PR) consultant who worked with businesses in the science and technology spaces, as well as games companies. "This is a controversial way of [reaching out to your audience] because they went to a highly controversial site; one that's targeted to a certain type of people.

"Even for different channels, you usually have different ways of aligning [or presenting] your messages. My question is: What are they promoting? Are they looking for gamers of a certain demographic? And why?"

"Even if you have the most interesting idea, if you just randomly release it you don't know what the feedback is going to be"

Such mistakes aren't unique to the games industry -- the Pepsi-Kendall Jenner ad quickly springs to mind -- but the spontaneous manner in which these decisions were made took Sheikh by surprise. Clearly defined targets and goals are essential to any PR strategy, and extensive research and planning should be factored into every step of a PR campaign -- be it announcing a product launch or publicising an event.

"You need to research some ideas first to see if this has been tested before," Sheikh added. "Even if you have the most interesting idea, if you just randomly release it you don't know what the feedback is going to be."

One method is to run trial groups, to see if the plans would work with a group of beta testers -- a common practice in PR in most industries, Sheikh said, and one that is relatively simple to organise in games due to the vested interest of the fans. This research can be carried out in the form of a survey or even a mock Reddit AMA.

"They can [turn it into] a contest or something and get those beta testers to test it, make them sign a confidentiality agreement [if necessary] and see whether the campaign can run," Sheikh added. "That's better than maybe just saying, 'Oh, maybe I'll just do it at 8chan, because it's controversial.'"

THQ Nordic's controversial use of 8chan puzzled many PR professionals

Amanda, who works at a PR agency, observed that anticipating mistakes like that of THQ Nordic is difficult in games, due to the tendency to only bring in an agency late in the development cycle of a specific product.

"What I've seen happen often is that we won't get a client until they have a PR problem to be solved," she said. "It's hard to clean up a mess I wasn't prepared for, which goes back to proactive PR being the better approach than reactive."

Sheikh explained how that approach doesn't play to the strengths of the PR agency or the studio's PR manager: "When you are doing PR in-house, you have many stakeholders to answer to. But which one is your priority? Is it sales, marketing or developers?" Other issues are created by another aspect of the games PR workforce, a significant proportion of which is staffed by people who joined through other routes than obtaining career-specific qualifications.

"Most PR managers at games companies haven't gone through the traditional PR university degrees that you would need in more traditional industries," added Daryl, another games PR practitioner who requested anonymity. "Most of us are former journalists, or started in other jobs at games companies... We learned the standard PR practices by observing and doing.

"Most of us are former journalists, or started in other jobs at games companies... We learned PR practices by observing and doing"

"That means there's more authenticity and passion, but the first time in your career you're faced with a PR crisis, it can get scary because it's not part of your everyday job. You don't always know what you should do."

Such passion is definitely indispensable to the role, according to Sheikh, but pure passion and invigorating ideas alone don't make for good PR. This is particularly true for journalists switching career paths, who may not always be equipped with the PR know-how to spin the right messages.

"The biggest plus for journalists is that they know where the story is... However, they may not know how to craft the messages," said Sheikh. "They need to do so from the perspective of the company, and know the company's background and why they are addressing things in a certain way. [From my experience] some journalists tend to just ask questions, and companies might find that very intrusive.

Sheikh emphasised the need for the same basic education for all those working in games PR: "In order to be effective in PR, you need to know how to craft key messages, understand why certain messages have to be said in a certain way, and make sure your company's business growth is communicated to the press or to the public.

"Education can be about going to school, even at a diploma level, or getting training from a PR veteran. Either way is fine. And as a trained PR person, you'll be able to consider every aspect of the job, you're thinking about what happens if something fails -- product fails, test fails, bugs in the system -- and have a response [ready]. That's when you work very closely with marketing and developers to make sure everything is in sync. Then you can figure out your next step, and figure out what to do in a crisis."

Further complicating the state of affairs is the fuzzy distinction between marketing and PR in the games industry. The two are often treated as one, and can snowball into unrealistic expectations. PR professionals often have to carry out marketing functions -- such as organising events or producing their own ads -- which can add up to a significant amount of extra work.

Responses to crisis vary wildly across the industry -- in the case of NetherRealm's crunch culture, Warner Bros was almost silent

"My job is to manage reputations and communicate, but I find even clients approaching me to speak to consumers or work on advertising materials," said Amanda. "Sometimes I'm stuck doing it because this is just games PR. In my previous role, this would have been unacceptable."

In smaller studios, the line gets muddier still. "Smaller studios usually have one PR manager, and maybe an agency helping out if they have the means for it," said Daryl. "And that PR person will usually wear many hats, not just liaising with press but also influencers, writing copy for store pages, managing events, and being a de facto community manager, too. They must think about every aspect of communications and may not have the biggest media list to work with, but they're also working with much smaller budgets."

"I feel like I play a role in gatekeeping, but I would love to work on campaigns where our scope wasn't just 'gamers'"

These issues seem prevalent in the games industry, and Sheikh stressed the importance of hiring a dedicated communications manager for every company -- someone who understands how to shape and communicate brand image and values to the public, and can work with PR professionals.

"They can help manage the changes that the industry or the company is going through, to help them craft proper messages, and conduct proper research, in order to further the company's purpose," she elaborated. "They can be someone who has dabbled in marketing or PR, but [their experience] cannot be completely unrelated... A lot of people [in this role] at least have a diploma or a degree in Communications. You should at least have basic knowledge, or even have done an internship, so you'll know what you're in for.

"Otherwise, they should definitely work with an external agency they can trust -- a vendor that can bring objectivity and a clearer perspective to refine their messages with."

This focus on producing the right messages may not seem like much, but it is crucial. The right messaging can be used to reach beyond the core audience of seasoned gamers, and so the ability is tied to long-term growth. "Is it okay to rely on this small base of audience? What about people who will potentially buy your games?" Sheikh asked. "As any company that needs to drive revenue, it's not easy to do so if you only keep reaching out to the same group of people."

Amanda also talked about the need to communicate with non-traditional audiences, something that was more common when she worked in other industries.

"In my old jobs, I was able to craft different messages for other [audiences] when I thought I may have a chance at entertaining their interest," she said. "Here, I'm just looking for the core gamer most of the time, and it makes me a little sad. I feel like I eventually play a role in gatekeeping, but I would love to work on campaigns where our scope wasn't just 'gamers'. That may be a strange train of thought, but I feel like plenty of titles are done a disservice when their aim is just to communicate with the core."

In a time marred by revelations of crunch, harassment and foolhardy business decisions leading to the collapse of entire companies, the industry itself is going through its very own PR crisis. The first step to overhauling this image is about encouraging its stakeholders -- from indie developers to AAA studios -- to adopt a more consistent and thorough communications. Better preparation, solid research, and deliberate strategies overseen by a dedicated communications manager.

"It's all so you can better your brand at the end of the day," Sheikh said. "So you won't have to spend as much resources and effort trying to recoup and polish your image again."

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