“I was reviewing a big, anticipated game in a well-known, successful franchise from a top-tier publisher. It’d gotten plenty of slobbery preview coverage from ours and other outlets in the months previous, but the final game was inescapably mediocre. So I gave it the score it deserved.”
Just like any other day for a gaming journalist on staff at a major publication, I’d imagine. Situations like this make me appreciate reviewers so much more (oh, I loved you lots before… good save?) — it makes me happy that as a consumer, I get to choose which games I play — as I’m sure they have to slog through four or five over-hyped blockbusters for one great game to cross their desks. I can get caught up in hype just like anyone else, though, and reviewers — those with integrity, at least — help me decide which games are worth spending money on.
“Shortly after the review was published, I got called into my editor’s office. Turns out the PR rep hadn’t even bothered to call me to find out what was up with the score we gave her game. She went directly to the head of the publication, insisting that I clearly didn’t play the game (I did, rather more than I’d have liked to), like the genre (actually it’s one of my favorites), had something against the platform (what?), and more.”
The previously quoted journalist isn’t alone, of course, as there have been high-profile cases of situations similar to this one — the famous Gerstmanngate saga saw Eidos seemingly force out a prominent journalist at GameSpot over a ho-hum review of a generally-perceived-as-ho-hum game, Sony made a boo-boo by blacklisting Kotaku because it posted about Home before its official announcement without Sony’s approval, and while unproven (the game looks excellent) Eidos has found itself in hot water again with allegations of trading an exclusive review for a high review score. All of those cases, of course, ended up with bad PR for the company doing the strong-arming, but whatever, let’s hope they’ve learned from their mistakes. One of the primary jobs of a PR rep is to ensure that his or her client is portrayed in the media frequently and in a positive light. It’s natural for us to want to have some impact on the tone of coverage, but where does the influence stop?
Don’t get me wrong: we have to assert influence in the hopes of garnering positive coverage. That’s PR’s job. An anonymous account manager at a gaming PR agency explains it as such: “As an agency games publicist, it’s my responsibility to identify and communicate those elements of my client’s product that are going to get people excited… Big budget blockbuster games, however, are a different animal. When piles of advertising and marketing dollars are involved, the line tends to blur.” This certainly seemed to be the case in the Gerstmann-Eidos confrontation — Eidos was spending money at GameSpot, didn’t like a review and threatened to pull ads if the review wasn’t dealt with. In that situation, Eidos ultimately… uhh… won? with Gerstmann’s firing from the popular site (again, never mind the bad PR). It’s obviously a frightening suppression of editorial freedom when the ad money dictates coverage, tone and someone’s career path.
What about the situations like those of our journalist? Or selling review scores for exclusivity? Situations in which PR feels that they can dictate the tone of coverage or barter for a glowing review are just as scary. One would assume that journalists — whether editor-in-chief or intern — would have the integrity to deny such advances, but certainly when there’s a big-budget game or a megapublisher involved, the journalist has to consider the future — what if I don’t buy into this? Could this publisher get pissed off and refuse to work with me in the future? Are they going to pull ad money so I’ll get fired by some suit whom I’ve met once and who has no regular input into editorial coverage? As we all know, it doesn’t always work out well for the publisher — a lot of reporters and outlets aren’t willing to play ball, and the ensuing exposure will likely make the company regret its actions. But let me ask this — would publishers still be engaging in these strong-arm tactics if they didn’t work? Is there a time and a place to sit down at your desk, call up a journalist (or his editor) and yell for a few minutes?
Sean Ridgeley, Content Editor at Neoseeker.com, notes that, “the writer maintaining his voice is absolutely integral to journalism, particularly with it being such a competitive field. But there are occasions where we can be out of line, and it is here the rep should step in — if a superior has not, is unaware, or feels differently — and kindly work with the writer to achieve a more constructive tone and write-up, as flagrancy really doesn’t get anyone anywhere.” Of course there are a lot of different ways to go about achieving that more constructive tone, and the extent of the PR rep’s reaction is likely aligned with his passion for the project — or his boss’s passion for kicking his ass for a negative review. I’ve read a lot of mediocre reviews of projects I was working on and thought, “man, this writer is clearly didn’t play the game, doesn’t like the genre or has something against the platform! How dare she give it a 7! Everyone else is giving it 9s!” Do I just pick up the phone and go berserk on the journalist, though? Do I call her editor? Nah. But I will pick through that review and let her know about specific things she got wrong, lines that make it clear she has no idea what a strategy game is and question whether someone who previously claimed a dislike of PC games should really be reviewing the game.
I’ve had reviews removed from sites for factual errors, and I’ve had outlets print retractions or adjustments because a reviewer hadn’t spent adequate time with a game to learn all of its features. After all, as PR reps we have to ensure that journalists give our games a fair shake. Our PR rep says, “I worked on a PC title called Desperate Housewives: The Game, which at its heart was a really well-designed, Sims-like game with engaging story-driven gameplay. We were targeting a more mature female demographic, highlighting features such as story, casual gameplay elements, and ease of play. Without someone to champion the development team’s gameplay and feature set decisions, would a game like Desperate Housewives stand a chance of getting a fair review among those who typically write reviews for young men? Would it have even gotten reviewed at all?”
That’s where PR’s real role lies, as Ridgeley explains: “My ideal PR rep is one who acts purely as a mediator between publisher, developer and the journalist; their job should not be to “manage review scores,” but to assist in seeing the most informed content possible published, regardless of whether or not the journalist agrees with everything they’ve been provided with. This is not a negative thing; it’s best to include as many views as possible in any piece of journalism, I believe, so as to include as many possible readers in the discussion, directly or indirectly. And like the rep, this is the role of the journalist, likewise: to strive for the most informed and honest work he can.”
Our journalist could have had to write some sort of retraction in the next issue. He could have been fired. Thankfully, he works for people with integrity. “To my editor’s credit, he laid out what he’d been told, listened to my refutation of the bullshit and my points in support of my negative review, and said he’d take care of it. As pissed off as I was at the PR rep – being told that you are a lazy liar who sucks at your job is never terribly pleasant – I felt vindicated by my editor’s response.” It doesn’t always work out in the PR rep’s favor, even if the complaining doesn’t make front-page news.
I’ve also been urged strongly to bitch at some journalist or another for a review I couldn’t really disagree with. In those situations, I’m the one who has to show integrity — I can argue to my client or boss (I’ve had both yell at me about reviews) about the facts, explaining how they’re being just a bit too blinded by their investment in the game to realize that some people do have opinions that differ from their own.
For all of this to work, the respect has to flow both ways. Publishers and PR reps should never try to put unjust pressure on journalists. Meanwhile, journalists should strive to be fair in their coverage of games. However, in the end, we have to go back to the way the hype machine works in this industry — publishers control the games and the assets, and as long as outlets rely on access to those assets, coverage will be bartered and will ultimately favor those with the most with which to barter.