Frustration is a natural byproduct of a modern life — for a lot of us human existence in the 21st century is just an endless, stressful race to the top, and we’re bound to slip over the edge into complete batshit insanity once in a while. With so much going on, we’d go nuts even if we didn’t interact with the other lovely humans inhabiting the planet, but when someone else’s negligence, failure or general idiocy is the cause of your batshit insanity… well… things tend to get a bit heated. One of the first lessons we learn in business, though, is to not let one’s emotions take control; frustrated as you may be, you should be taking time to think about the long-term implications of any outburst. “Will this come back to bite me in the ass?” should be the first question out of your mouth… and if you’re asking yourself that question, you should probably sit on the email, phone call or bar-of-soap-in-a-tube-sock beatings.So allow me to digress for a moment. Video game PR is a rare breed — up there with the film industry — in that PR reps largely control the media landscape. That’s no secret, of course; most reviews are based on game copies provided by publishers, preview opportunities are usually a valuable commodity exchanged for some sort of premium placement and are often subject to embargoes that help coverage fall in line with marketing efforts, and countless sites just re-post press releases verbatim. This is a gross generalization, I realize, as there are a lot of great sites and journalists out there that go the extra mile to generate original content that wasn’t pushed by a PR rep — coincidentally a lot of these guys came from a traditional journalism background. But largely it’s the publishers that determine where and when their games get coverage, and in almost all cases the coverage is closely controlled to be positive.
The seedy underbelly of the games industry exposes itself. When a journalist goes rebels and does something as recklessly disrespectful and anti-gaming as write a negative article about a game or publisher, a lot of PR reps and executives forget that golden rule and do something so unimaginably dumb in times of duress that I just can’t wrap my batshit insane head around it: they put that journalist on their blacklist. This list may not actually exist as such — I’d love to meet a PR rep ballsy enough to have a Games_PR_Blacklist.xls file on his or her desktop — but at the very least it’s a big mental note that said journalist is to never, ever (EVER) be treated like a real human being so long as he lives. Forget about review copies, forget about invites to the E3 demo, forget about the lavish press tour and accompanying open bar.
While not always the case, most blacklisting is decreed from high up in the corporate structure, not from the PR team. After all, it’s the PR team’s job to get as much coverage as possible — big, positive coverage, of course — while ensuring that journalists love them and their company/client. When your intimidating, power-tripping, fancy-car-driving boss comes running into your office yelling, “How the fuck did you let this happen?! You’ll pay for this!” after a not-so-flattering review, it might seem like an affront to common sense to look him in the eye and say, “you know, I worked really hard on this campaign, really respect my relationship with this journalist and feel he makes some good points about our shitty game, so please stay out of my business.” That’s really what the reaction should be, though.
It shouldn’t be a yes-sir-I-shall-do-my-job kind of thing — you, the PR rep, want this journalist to cover your games in the future, right? What if you leave the company? What if your boss gets fired and new management has a good relationship with that writer? Forever you’ll be the jackass PR rep that had to repeatedly respond to the journalist with something like, “we don’t have any review code available” or “your invite must have been lost in the mail.” A PR professional’s most valuable asset is the contact list (a nice rack doesn’t hurt, as evidenced by yours truly)… or rather the relationships with the people on that contact list, and that fact should always be in the back of your mind. Always.
Sure, it’d be nice if we could live in China — they have a national journalist blacklist… we wouldn’t have to do the dirty work ourselves, and the journalists could be mad at someone else when they’re denied a coverage opportunity. But if there’s anything to be learned from China (or Iran or any other communications-controlling nation) it’s that if there’s a message that needs to get out there, it’ll get out. Social media — rise of Facebook and Twitter, yadda yadda — has connected people in such a way that any sort of negative story will spread just as quickly or faster than a positive one. Blacklist a journalist — or better yet, an entire website (I’d link to examples, but I do have to make a living by pitching publishers) — and word is likely to get out. A writer will put up a blog post, he’ll link it on Twitter and within a day you’re on the front page at Kotaku and Joystiq and Rock, Paper, Shotgun and GameSetWatch and Fidgit and EVERYWHERE.
So blacklisting was a good idea, right? The PR rep sacrifices a relationship with a journalist; the PR rep hates his boss a bit more; the publisher no longer gets coverage on a major website; and potentially, if that journalist is just batshit insane enough, the blacklisting actually becomes a negative PR story of its own, far worse than a 6.5 out of 10 review of a game that was supposed to get 8s.
I’ve had to blacklist people in an agency capacity — it’s been a couple of years, but it’s happened. I fought it, trying valiantly to convey the notion that the writer really made valid points (sometimes you guys really don’t help with this, by the way — play the damn game!). Conveniently, it’s usually been at the request/demand of a single client, so I’ve been able to maintain my relationships with other products… it’s a nice little loophole that’s kept me from looking like an asshole and gaining more enemies than I really need. I’m sure I’ll have to refuse review copies at some point in the future because my client/employer doesn’t like a journalist or website… but damn, I’m scared of things coming back to bite me in the ass. Wired’s Chris Anderson famously hit back at inept PR reps by creating a blacklist of his own, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we’re just building up slowly to some sort of armageddon for games-industry PR pros, when journalists just band together and say, “we’re running the show now” and create some sprawling online PR-rep blacklist. They’ll block our email addresses, screen our calls and throw out our party invites. They’ll dictate the coverage, they’ll write negative previews before a game ships, they won’t post shitty screenshots and lame hype trailers. And the PR professionals of the world will sit there, scratching our heads, wondering how journalists could have become so frustrated with us.