There’s a PR storm kicking off on Twitter. Briefly, an angry video game PR had threatened to blacklist gaming journos and websites that gave bad reviews to one of its client’s games.
Rightly, hacks and flacks have piled in to condemn this approach, and indeed the PR behind the Tweet has eaten ‘umble pie and apologized. But apart from highlighting yet again how Twitter is becoming THE channel for mainstream audience communications – both good and bad – it also raises an interesting question, ‘can public relations prove the old adage wrong that you can’t polish a turd’?
For the uninitiated, the turd in this question is the game Duke Nukem. A legendary franchise that started life 20 years ago on the PC. After a 15 year hiatus – during which time the game’s title became a by-word for anything that was promised but never delivered – the latest installment was launched to much fanfare and pretty average (read poor) reviews. Put simply, the game seems like a bit of a dud.
I’ll admit straight away that I haven’t played it, and that’s sort of fundamental to this post. Games cost upwards of £35 so they’re hardly an impulse purchase…which is why game reviews websites, blogs and magazines retain a level of respect and importance in an otherwise fragmented media landscape. Aside from the hardcore franchise fans, most gamers want to know if they should invest their hard earned cash (or pocket money) in a title. The integrity of gaming reviews therefore is of paramount importance, hence the outcry at the PR’s attitude in this case.
I speak from experience. As a former video game journalist, my first ‘taste’ of PR was being given a fair amount of booze and assorted video game tat to ‘ahem’ help me review products. Being honest, the free stuff was secondary to the relationship myself and my magazine had with the PRs . The ones that came to see us and helped us with exclusives, tips and other useful stuff definitely benefited from lenient scoring on bad games. I also appreciated honesty on behalf of the PR…if they knew a game was shit and they didn’t try and polish a turd then we, in turn, tried to look for the positives rather than focus on the negatives. This approach is arguably universally true regardless of what PR discipline you focus on.
But my time served on the mags was nearly 20 years ago. Times have most definitely changed. There was no Internet back then, word of mouth or magazines were the only real channels to get an opinion on whether a video game (though it could have been any piece of consumer tech) was worth purchasing. In an age where peer recommendation is available at the click of a mouse (or swipe of a finger) I’m starting to wonder whether PRs should be focusing on polishing turds themselves, rather than trying to give influencers and media their own candy-coated dusters and gold-clad cans of Mr Sheen.
By that I mean, accept that a bad product or service is a bad product or service but also accept that there are ways to move people to purchase outside the channels of media reviews. I’m not advocating bypassing the media and bloggers (you can’t anyway) rather I’m talking about creating compelling content and messaging, written and curated by the publishers and placed directly into the target audiences by the PRs themselves.
I’m sure many PRs will say that they are already doing this, but I doubt many of them have the sanction to honestly appraise the product they are promoting and adjust their approach accordingly.
Some might even say it’s not the PR’s role to make a value judgment on the quality of what they are selling-in to the media and influencers. I can sympathize with that view, but going on my own experiences of being a consumer tech hack, that approach doesn’t work in the long run. I’d also argue that it restricts creative thinking because the focus will most likely be on messaging and elements of the product or service that just won’t wash with the target audience. Far better – I would have thought – to know what the limitations of your product are and work around them?
So I guess I have some sympathy for @TheRednerGroup because I’m sure they knew they were pushing a product that wasn’t as good as the hype yet couldn’t find a way to communicate that understanding to their media and influencers without harming the client/agency relationship. Perhaps they were in a no-win situation, their own kobayashi maru from which there was no escape, hence the ill-judged, frustrated and angry Tweet?
Perhaps. But I genuinely believe that if the PR industry as a whole gave itself a greater license to be honest about the output of its clients, then we’d all find that we can indeed polish a turd.
*I apologize for the amount of times the word turd has appeared in the piece. ‘Silk purse’ and ‘sows ear’ just didn’t seem to have the same impact