PR Musings; or, Lesson-learned from Microsoft’s E3 fiasco

spongebobopeningHe’s just SO EXCITED to share things with you.

“[Public Relations is] a management function, which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures, and interests of an organization… followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.” -Edward Louis Bernays

In the 1900s, Bernays, often referred to as the father of modern public relations, wrote a series of essays and books that outlined the principles from which public relations professionals root their practice. Essentially, it is the duty of the PR staff to engage, gauge, and disseminate feedback from the public to a company’s leadership and its stakeholders. Conversely, they also act as the voice and the public face of the company. This is carried out in a myriad of ways, though in this day in age, it’s mostly through the vast expanse of the Internet via social media and networking sites.

This is a somewhat scant explanation for that in which PR practitioners spend many years training and educating themselves. But it provides a good perspective for this discussion.

A few years ago, Gamasutra contributors Shawn Elliott and Robert Ashley, wrote a rather in-depth behind-the-scenes look at what USED to be the norm for gaming PR. I say used to because in 2007, when the article was published, our embrace of social media was still taking off and hadn’t really reached the stratosphere in which we currently find it. Within the article they describe the often-exhaustive dance PR specialists would engage with journalists to ensure “premium real-estate,” or spreads within notable publications, and decent critical scores. The idea was that such published material would equate to more consumers, which would thus increase market share, dollars, and a beefed up bottom line for investors.

The difference between an ad and a published story, of course, is that a writer can say anything he or she wants about a game. But in allowing a publication access to a game and the people who created it, publishers exert a subtle influence. The greatest tool in their arsenal is the exclusive, often taking the form of a sought-after cover story for magazines.

So the first question is, how has social media changed this way of thinking? The simple answer is that it hasn’t. More customers will always equal more money, which is exactly the point of a business (despite whatever nobility might be inlaid within any company’s practicum). What social media has done is forced companies to rethink their engagement strategies. For a gaming company that is not only dependent on interaction with its customers, but also among the customers themselves with each other, a simple PR specialist isn’t going to cut it.

The gaming industry has developed a relatively different form of marketing and PR, while still adhering to long-harbored principles of communication and customer-focused branding.  While there are traditional PR professionals, the reliance on “community teams” to perform more of the public engagement roles has been a prevalent characteristic of marketing strategy that allows its traditional PR specialists to focus more on the stakeholders, and the community teams to engage with both the public and the gaming industry media. This strategy has proved quite effective if you were to analyze some of the industries heaviest hitters, Blizzard, Naughty Dog, and Bioware and a myriad of other successful companies. Looking at Blizzard, even with recent falls in subscription numbers for its most popular title, World of Warcraft, the mere fact that it was able to garner anything higher than a few hundred thousand subscriptions is proof that having a knowledgeable, patient and active community management team is vital to gaining public support. Word of mouth has been the subtlest yet decisively important weapon in a marketing strategy arsenal, and it’s this principle that lays center for the multitude of roles and responsibilities for any community manager.

Bubblestand For companies that don’t have a visible community team, they rely on the PR specialists to perform the functions that current community managers perform on a daily basis. These include analysis, forecasting, opinion forming, and feedback reporting to company seniors, among others. It is therefore extremely important for company leadership to take such reports and the well-informed counsel of their PR reps to heart when they decide to stand in the spotlight.

Lesson the first: When leadership drifts away from the company message

Hop in the Delorian and travel back with me to a time two months LONG AGO when Microsoft was debuting its Xbox One system at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). To the chagrin of many players, Don Mattrick, then head of Xbox operations, proudly explained some controversial features of the system, which included among others the need to connect the system to the Internet at least once a day or else the system would brick out until a player did so. PR leaders will debate what resulted from the E3 debut as either a failure of a company’s specialists to properly counsel leadership on media engagement and message delivery, or a rogue leader’s inability to take such counsel and properly apply it in his media engagement.

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Case in point:

“Fortunately we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity. It’s called Xbox 360. If you have zero access to the Internet, [the Xbox 360] is an offline device. When I read the blogs and thought about who’s really the most impacted, there was a person who said, ‘Hey, I’m on a nuclear sub.’ I don’t even know what it means to be on a nuclear sub but I’ve got to imagine that it’s not easy to get an Internet connection. I can empathize, if I was on a sub I’d be disappointed.” –Don Mattrick during a GTTV interview

When I first read about this interview, I had a hard time believing Mattrick would take such a, let’s be nice and say, unique stance about Xbox One’s requirements. And by “unique” I mean “douchebag.” Look, I could pussyfoot around the fact that his attitude outright sucked, but why would I? It’s a perfect example of someone who either lacked guidance in how to convey his message, or ignored such guidance. Let’s explain why it was so controversial.

When it was first explained that Xbox One required a frequent Internet connection what it essentially did was cut off any desire for most military customers to purchase the system. Military gamers bring their consoles with them on deployments, whether on a Navy warship, or boots on ground in the Middle East. In a post on Gamasutra, naval flight officer Jay Johnson said it quite eloquently, “Microsoft has single handedly alienated the entire military, and not just the U.S. military, the militaries of the entire world.” As a Sailor myself, I can inform that consoles CANNOT be connected to the Internet on a navy warship, period. And for servicemembers deployed overseas in places like the Middle East, Internet is intermittent at best with service only available on the major operating bases and usually only reserved for quick email and instant messaging home. When I was deployed to Afghanistan, I was able to connect to World of Warcraft in the very late hours and early morning hours when everyone else was asleep, otherwise it was mostly unplayable and completely so if I was away from the main operating posts on an assignment.

Needless to say, the idea of REQUIRING a console to connect to the Internet once a day concerned pretty much every military Microsoft customer and coupled with other unappealing aspects of the console left a lot of people turning to Sony who was banking on Microsoft’s PR missteps.

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So instead of a dismissive, flippant, “sucks to be you” response, the counsel I would have given Mattrick as a PR specialist would have advised him to focus on a different angle of the message:

“We realize the current system requirements concern a large chunk of our customerbase, especially the brave members of the military serving our nation. Rest assured we are working diligently with the military to find a workable solution that will not leave our valued customers unable to enjoy our new system.”

And would he be lying? Heck no. Microsoft has a longstanding symbiotic relationship with the military that it’s almost assured that if they stuck with the online requirement, there would eventually come a military-friendly solution. But did Mattrick say or even HINT as much? No. Which for me at the time begged the question, “where the hell are your PR people to take control of what you’re saying?” Even if they were there giving him the exact counsel I would given, they should have been there to do some damage control after he clearly ignored basic PR principles for media-customer engagement.

What eventually followed was a tirade of online criticism that forced Microsoft to relinquish its stance on Xbox One requirements and, “coincidentally,” Mattrick’s departure to lead fledgling Zynga. E3 is an event where companies debut, preview, and hint at their major releases and create positive buzz to titillate the aforementioned “word of mouth” weapon aimed right in the hearts of general consumers. To leave E3 in such an entanglement as Microsoft did is a nightmare for any PR professional.

Lesson the second: Tearing down others is not effective message delivery

“I think most of the people who worked at Rare at the time were Nintendo fans and we loved working closely with Nintendo. Rare was also a close-knit family and so it was something of a shock to suddenly become part of such a huge organization as Microsoft. There was a severe culture clash, which perhaps didn’t become apparent at first as Microsoft mostly allowed us to continue as we had always done. However as time passed and there were staff changes at MGS, together with Tim and Chris (Stamper) leaving, the culture changed and it began to feel more Microsoft and less Rare. While Rare continues to put out high quality games, for me it lost some of the spark that had made the company special.” -Phil Tossell

What this refers to is the 2002 Microsoft buyout of Rare Ltd for $375 million. This acquisition has been debated amongst industry insiders, and even Rare developers, as the start of the downfall for a once titan of game studios that saw success from powerhouse titles like Starfox, GoldenEye, Killer Instinct and Banjo-Kazooie.

This is an example of false positivity where under the guise of “earnest colloquy” one speaks of events within a company that are so vague people can’t really see the forest for the trees. There are ways of communicating discontent, but not in such a guarded manner that it reads more like typical “QQ” rather than genuine criticism. What makes this pseudo candidry is the mere fact that while Tossell states his opinion on what is his issues were at Rare post-acquisition, never once did he offer what exactly was wrong beyond “staff changes.” Apparently, other people like myself saw through Tossell’s remarks and decided to have a little fun with it. Last week, this interesting article was shared on my Twitter account from satirical gaming news site Play4Real in which Microsoft Studios Vice President Phil Spector, had some rather controversial “revelations”:

“The acquisition of Rare was made almost out of spite. They had made great games for Nintendo so we figured the best way to stop that would be to buy Rare and then run them into the ground. We definitely had the money for it and thought it would be a great investment. And after the initial acquisition, we wouldn’t have to spend any more money on them since we weren’t going to try to make them into a real Microsoft development team.”

Just to be clear, the article and quotes are fake (Play4Real is like The Onion for gaming news), but it’s a nice glimpse into the debate of what some feel is a downward turn for Rare. There’s a lesson for both sides. In a war of words between companies and their former employees, it’s imperative that the company allow the disgruntled to voice their concern, acknowledge it to an extent, wish them the best, and move on. So far, it seems that’s exactly what Microsoft is doing (too bad such showmanship couldn’t be seen during the E3 debacle).

To conclude, I reiterate the importance of PR professionals. They are the voice, face and architects of effective messages that can bring even the saddest of news and turn them into opportunities for company advancement. Within the gaming industry in this social media-driven world, they are the liaisons between a company, its stakeholders, and the community engagements teams that work jointly to engage customers, investors, and communicate information about products, current and in development. There are quite a few companies doing it right, and these are worth emulating. However, the challenge for PR professionals is knowing when to put their foot down, reigning in a leash, controlling an interview going astray, and knowing effective damage control that will avoid unnecessary public embarrassments like that seen by Microsoft after E3.

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