PR Panel 2019: Six top PRs on live titles, data vs creativity, events, influencers, Epic Game Store and ‘Greggs, always Greggs’

We’ve taken six of our MCV Awards 2019 PR finalists and asked them all to stop pitching their clients for just a few minutes in order to answer our questions on the industry and PR’s ever-evolving role within it. What do they think, let’s find out!

How have live service games changed the PR sector?

Ongoing titles, with some running for well over a decade, pose unique challenges, especially when the press is always on the lookout for something new. We wondered how our panel approached these perennial clients.

Bastion’s Barrett explains key shift: “There has been a move away from a pure product focus towards developing the sense of community within a game and the heightened experience that comes from playing within a passionate community. We’ve worked extensively on building MMO brands and there is a distinctive art in creating multiple compelling stories about a live world.”

Petrullo, from Renaissance PR, agrees that multiple ideas are needed for such titles: “The idea is to create mini campaigns and themes that go over and above the usual news cycle of ‘announcement, preview and review’ and instead focus on game updates for the community and influencers, plus make full use of themes and seasonal events for traditional media.”

Indigo Pearl’s Miller explains that “returning to traditional media with the same story all the time” is challenging but both being creative, and finding allies, is the way forward: “We always try to find a more interesting narrative that will keep the press on board and to find the journalists who are fans of the franchise – and therefore naturally interested.”

Miller continues: “Of course, influencers are key here as well and if they are already engaged, then going back with updates is typically a lot easier. We also believe it’s very important to try to maintain a regular dialogue with communities while also utilising all relevant social media channels.”

When it comes to measuring success, “there are clear metrics on community engagement and growth,” Barrett says, adding that “a great creative story can also bring softer rewards.”

Petrullo notes the need for a coordinated approach: “We’re heavily data driven so we monitor the reach compared to the other elements of marketing and sales to evaluate how successful we are. We consider cross-channel coordination between social-PR and marketing-sales one of the biggest factor of success of a campaign.”

Is PR becoming increasingly data-driven, as with marketing?

We live in an increasingly data-driven world, and marketing increasingly values accurate ROI in its campaigns, but is PR moving the same way, or are gut, creativity and who you know still the key factors?

Mimram’s Carter strikes a balance: “It’s a bit of everything to be honest and it really depends on how the client likes to work. We use data to track coverage, reach, and so on, of course, and some of my cleverer colleagues here use it to predict news cycles and peak times for social media engagement in different sectors. But ultimately, we still believe it’s about creativity and thinking beyond press releases, previews and reviews.”

It’s not simply about data vs creativity though, but an integrated approach, says Vertigo 6’s Hendrixen: “It’s not only about being more data-driven. It’s become increasingly important that PR is part of an overall integrated marketing communications plan. PR does not sit on a separate island anymore and earned output is totally irrelevant if it doesn’t contribute to the overall campaign goals.”

And that’s a feeling which Bastion’s Barrett agrees with: “The silos of PR, marketing and sales are beginning to fall away. Truly integrated campaigns achieve greater success and provide much deeper insight into player attitudes and desires, but creativity will always win out.” And the best examples of creativity are “ideas that achieve cut through, attract both players and non-players and drive forward greater understanding of a title and brand.”

For Little Big, GDPR was a turning point in its approach to data: “GDPR was a big financial investment for us, but it’s one we’re glad we made,” Williams explains. “This led to the creation of our distribution system, which allows us to work within GDPR rules to use the data we acquire more effectively. Not just how many people read emails, but who and when, to gauge success rates dependant on the product, genre and many other factors. Having the data isn’t as important as how you analyse and utilise the data.”

He adds there’s more to PR than such systems though: “It’s still about relationships, ideas, and the ability to see an opportunity – they make stories travel and propagate.”

Renaissance works on “an accurate combination of data together with gut, creativity and strong relationships” with Petrullo adding: “I am personally a great fan of data since if you read it properly, it will help a lot. On the flip side, I see too many examples of data driven campaigns that do not deliver due to an imbalance of those two sides of the same coin. Also, when we look at media landscape, we prefer to work with people than with brands.” 

The PC space is hotting up with Epic Games Store. What are the opportunities and challenges? 

The PC retail space has become more fragmented, with major publishers moving to their own storefronts, and now Epic Games taking on Steam in a big way. So what do these changes mean for PR?

“Epic is definitely going to shake things up which should make the PC retail space more competitive,” says Indigo Pearl’s Miller, who goes on talk specifics: “Steam curators are a valuable PR source for us and we pay keen attention to them, but it feels like Epic will be using their influencer partnership program, in which case we would naturally be looking to target them.”

The new store may also ease one of Steam’s perennial issues says Bastion’s Barrett: “Discoverability is always an issue, but it’s particularly true in some of the more bloated online offerings. Getting players past the front page is a challenge that we all have to work on and PR, in its many guises, has a part to play.”

Discoverability is also foremost for Little Big’s Williams: “Some of the titles being promoted via the store in exclusivity deals are going to fare much better than the crowded marketplace of Steam,” he notes. “There are some downsides, though, in that PR needs to talk to all audience targets, regardless of where they’re buying games.”

However, Mimram’s Carter has learnt that fragmentation shouldn’t trouble good
games: “It’s a cliché, but a great product will always find its audience. Some of our team worked through the early days of mobile games in the mid-noughties, and you’d be hard-pushed to find a market more fragmented than that in terms of both distribution channels and technology platforms. But the best games performed well across them all.”

Petrullo reckons that the early signs are good: “Epic’s PR machine has so far being great in promoting this new space and our experience with our clients using the new platform has been excellent,” the Renaissance PR boss reveals.  

Events look to grow again this year, how do you approach event PR?

Gaming events are bigger than ever, and more varied too with public, community, influencer and press – or some blend of any and all of the above. So what did our panel advise when it comes to running and promoting such events plus benefitting from them?

When it comes to running events, be they awards ceremonies or experiential press nights, Mimram’s Carter is clear on the key: “It’s all about timing. From when the event itself takes place, to when the invites are sent out, to how things are run on the night. We also run logistics and operations, and having that ‘360 view’ of an event is extremely useful.”

Of course events can be powerful drivers of social engagement, says Hendrixen from Vertigo 6: “Instead of ‘only’ celebrating a release, the purpose of events have changed. Events aren’t goals in themselves anymore but a means to offer press, influencers and community a platform to create content.”

And that engagement stretches well beyond the event itself says Bastion’s Barrett: “The ability to have a prolonged conversation with players or the media – before, during and after an event – means they provide a perfect platform from which to build awareness and desire and then continue the dialogue. Every event provides a unique opportunity to drive deeper understanding and passion – the trick is to create an event that genuinely makes a difference to the brand or product.”

And that’s a point Petrullo at Renaissance is keen to pick up: “An event needs to show real added value in engaging the media over and above the content of the game. We use a KPI driven and pragmatic approach to events. If we gauge tangible value in terms of coverage, or we can reach an audience otherwise not interested in our product, we are happy to go forward. What is vital is setting the objective at the beginning of the campaign and then, once decided to do an event, ask clearly what the goal is.”

With EGX, Rezzed and London Games Festival on its books, Indigo Pearl has experience with the biggest UK events, Miller tells us: “Event PR is not for the faint-hearted, it’s a lot of hard work and the deadlines can be brutal. Dealing with nationals, broadcast and news outlets means that the coverage tends to come together at the last minute, and naturally, doing PR at the event can be very hectic! But it’s extremely rewarding and there is nothing quite as bonding for your team as getting to the end of a big, successful event.”

And it’s that out-of-office experience that Williams from Little Big also values: “Events are the best thing about PR, because we get to step away from our desks and hug people. In a world where phones and emails are becoming less important to game-specific journalists, these events continue to be a vital cog within the wheel of relationship management. It doesn’t matter if it’s a preview event, a showcase event, or activity around a trade show. There is no substitute for face to face discussions and editorial planning.”

How involved are you with influencers and influencer marketing, and is there a clear line there?

While the influencer sector bridges the traditional divide of editorial and paid-for marketing, PRs are still key to their use. So how do our panel view the hugely popular yet still evolving segment?

Hendrixen, from Vertigo 6, sums up its growing importance: “Where influencers were ‘nice to haves’ in 2017, they have become the starting point of many integrated comms campaigns in 2018 and we expect them to be even more important in paid and earned media campaigns this year. Relevancy and authenticity of content are crucial for collaborations and we expect that more brands will demand long term relationships and category exclusivity.“

Miller is also keen to seek out authenticity: “At Indigo Pearl we always strive to find authentic voices in this space: if an influencer doesn’t love your game then no amount of money will make them seem convincing. We are also constantly looking for up-and-coming voices, to complement the usual suspects who tend to have fairly commercial deals with publishers anyway.”

Bastion’s Barrett says: “This year, we’ve made the move to define and separate our influencer work from our overall PR service. We’ve created a platform called Pulse which helps clients build a targeted influencer campaign without budgets spiralling out of control. While we’d always suggest a 360 approach to any campaign, we’ve found it helps clients budget more effectively.”

“The market is certainly more mature than it was 12 months ago,” he continues. “But it still has some way to go. There is space for more PR skills and disciplines to be added to campaigns whether working with top tier or micro influencers. For us, we see 2019 as the year more process and structure will be established within the influencer community.”

Miller agrees: “We do feel that this space is maturing and companies such as Fourth Floor are a joy to work with when it comes to organising paid placements. As with all new disruptive media, it will eventually become more sophisticated, as brands seek to avoid fall-out from off-message YouTubers and streamers, and they start to monitor and research them much more closely. We will also see the mirror of this as influencers try to limit damage to their own brand, say by supporting shoddy offerings – Fyre Festival anyone?”

What are the big challenges and opportunities in 2019? 

Looking forward to the rest of 2019 our panel sees a wide variety of challenges, both for the industry and PR specifically. The sheer wealth of content remains both a boon and a concern.

“Discoverability as an issue has not improved – Switch started getting saturated last summer,” says Petrullo from Renaissance. “There are a lot of games, so our challenge is trying to assess the value of every single one that approaches us to establish what we can do to help the launch.”

Mimram’s Carter says: “The opportunity is always the huge amount of games that are coming to market from an increasingly diverse range of developers, publishers and platforms. No two projects are quite the same, which means creative thinking is vitally important. The major challenge is making sure a message cuts through the noise at a time when journalists are extremely time poor and bombarded from so many directions.”

And a lack of time is just part of the changing media landscape, says Little Big’s Williams: “Publications are pivoting to inventory-led editorial versus audience-leading editorial. This is the biggest challenge PR faces, and we’ll all need to work more closely with editorial leads to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

Petrullo agrees: “The media landscape is changing again and so we are actively shifting our focus to social media PR, such as video content production on Facebook in partnership with traditional media and influencers.”

To which Vertigo 6’s Hendrixen adds: “Media consumption within one generation has never been as diverse. One-size-fits-all marketing approaches don’t work anymore and messages and campaigns need to be better hyper targeted than ever.”

And then of course there’s Brexit, says Bastion’s Barrett: “The B word can’t be avoided. Uncertainty is the enemy of successful business planning so not being able to see clearly past March 29th is a challenge. On the up side esports continues to thrive, and historically consumers have turned to games in uncertain times, so maybe that’s the silver lining we have to look forward to.”

While over in Europe itself, Hendrixen is anticipating a boon in localised campaigns: “With the growing popularity of local influencers and changes to local media consumption, a local marketing and PR approach is becoming increasingly important.”

And to round off, Indigo Pearl’s Miller thinks the big challenge always stay the same though: “[It’s] keeping up with the most dynamic entertainment industry in the world and making sure we come up with creative, yet authentic, messages to get the attention
of gamers.”

What PR campaigns have inspired you in the last 12 months and do clients need to take more risks to succeed?

Finally we asked out panel what campaigns had struck a chord with it, and all without the very tricky task of blowing their own trumpets. Most but not all succeeded.

“Greggs, always Greggs,” says Indigo Pearl’s Miller admiringly, before adding: “It does feel that some games’ campaigns are a bit formulaic and conservative, considering they are after all, games! At Indigo Pearl we have enjoyed all the ‘woke’ campaigns such as Nike using Colin Kaepernick and campaigns that harnessed the power of social media such as #MeToo and #TimesUp.” She also singled out Fortnite: “We loved Epic putting a Durr Burger in the desert and waiting for people to find it.”

Carter, from Mimram, also has a soft spot for the bakers: “Greggs deserves a massive shout-out for their campaigns over the past year – whether that’s offering Valentine’s dining for two, going undercover at foodie festivals or ‘winding up’ Piers Morgan with their new vegan sausage roll. And we love their steak bakes too.”

Closer to the industry, Carter picks out Sony’s Lost In Music brand campaign: “It’s an ambitious project that seeks to combine live events, TV shows and digital media to reach Gen Zs and is almost certainly a benchmark for how brands will need to approach PR and marketing going forward. This means following the audience and ensuring messages are in the media spaces they inhabit, which is often not where you think they will be. The initiative has tied together the best of Sony’s music artists and technology brands, generating significant coverage and cut-through for Sony.”

Little Big’s Williams feels something is lacking: “The games industry, specifically within the UK, is going through a less creative time at present. There’s no Leo Tan promoting a game with stories involving Heather Mills, no Air Guitar funeral, no zombie weddings, and a general trend towards spending budgets on events rather than ideas. Ultimately, I can’t name a single campaign that has amazed me with its creativity, which is disappointing.

“However, I will compliment the work that Indigo Pearl did with Minit, the dedication that Bope, Dead Good and Renaissance are bringing to the business and the incredible hard work and passion from teams at Bandai Namco and Square Enix specifically.”

Renaissance’s Petrullo says: “I am a big fan of experiential campaign and personally really like the great stuff Capcom did with Monster Hunter, following the trend I believe started with Resident Evil a couple of years ago.”

He’s not keen on the word ‘risk’ but feels the industry should “try new things instead of being stuck in a template we all use.” He continues: “This applies to both clients and agencies, sometimes due to lack of planning we end up to being too reactive instead of trying new things that inevitably take time. This comes back to something I keep saying to my team and clients: plan as far in advance, and try to be as creative, as possible but still driven by KPI.”

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