PR Panel 2021: Eight PR experts look back on a hard year, plus the new consoles, preparing for the year ahead and the return of events

To say 2020 was a year like no other has become a terrible cliché at this point. The year was already supposed to be a big one for the industry, with the launch of the new generation of consoles back in November. In normal times, it would have been looked back on as the latest paradigm shift to change the next few years of our industry.

Sadly, 2020 will instead be remembered as the year of COVID-19. While the games industry has certainly fared better than most, with people turning to gaming for entertainment and socialisation while stuck at home, the loss of major events such as GDC and E3 have presented major questions about what our work looks like in the new normal.

While we hope for a better year ahead than the one we’ve left behind us, we’re not out of the woods yet. So we spoke to? eight games industry PR experts about their stance on where the industry is now, and where we might be heading.

How has the pandemic changed how you operate, and what changes from this time do you think you’ll maintain going forward?

 

Dean Barrett, Bastion

COVID-19 has forced many of us to drastically change in how we work. While there are some aspects of the old ways of working that we certainly miss, not all change is a bad thing – even change caused under terrible circumstances. Has the PR industry learned any useful lessons from this experience?

“Going forward I don’t think we will ever expect anyone to go to the office five days a week,” begins Indigo Pearl’s Caroline Miller. “We can see people are working really well from home so we will take a much more blended approach post-pandemic, and try to strike a balance between the joy of not having to face public transport but then the fun of having social interactions in the office.”

This love for home working over an office commute is one that some of us at MCV/DEVELOP share too – But it’s not universally appealing, as Marchsreiter Communications’ Dieter Marchsreiter explains:

“I foresee keeping partial home office if it has an advantage for anyone in the team, but I would not want to have full home office for everyone in the team forever. The communication between teams in a real office is better, big ‘in real life’ meetings are much better.”

Charlene Sharp, Way to Blue

Still, a home office can certainly reduce costs – even if you’re maintaining an office in the city anyway. That opens up new opportunities, says Vertigo 6’s Mike Hendrixen:

“Vertigo 6 is based in The Netherlands and our focus areas are Benelux and Nordics. Many of our gaming and hardware clients are based in the UK, France and the US. We used to visit them at least twice a year but because of the lockdowns across Europe, trips abroad have stopped and all communication moved to video conferences.

“The entire team works from home, with just a few in the office to ship products. We miss seeing our colleagues and clients, but we have become more lean and more effective and our company has grown over 50 pre cent this year. Every year, our clients are surveyed for satisfaction. We had expected the scores to be a little lower because of the lack of ‘real life’ communication, but the customer score has gone up to 9.7!”

In a more globalised world, with ever more streamers in particular, how do you manage press relations at such a scale, and how important is data to your business?

 

Chris Clarke, Plan of Attack

The loss of physical events may have impacted PR’s contact with journalists, but the opportunities with influencers are bigger than ever. Twitch streamers in particular are seeing hugely increased engagement, with their fan bases seeking the social space they can provide – a huge opportunity for PR.

“This is a golden age for PR,” says Bastion’s Dean Barrett. “Social media, influencers and the plethora of measurement and audience tools means we’re now able to genuinely quantify the impact of PR rather than second guessing. We can emphatically prove that the content and messaging we create delivers momentum and provides a solid base on which to build global media campaigns. But relevance should never be sacrificed for reach. ‘Think local, act global’ can creatively sometimes be a challenge, but good ideas nearly always translate anywhere.”

“We work for some of the leading global entertainment brands across TV, film and games so the 24/7 nature of marketing to global online audiences must always be factored into our campaigns” adds Way To Blue’s Charlene Sharp. “That’s why it’s also essential for us to have a global team, who are available across different time zones 24/7.
With so many streamers online, some of whom have huge follower numbers, it means that we can take an always-on approach, tracking online conversation for our clients and responding quickly.

Stefano Petrullo, Renaissance

“Therefore, social listening is key to our business strategy. It not only enables us to track conversation but also helps us to identify insight about a brand or product in real-time. It also enables us to research in advance the best streamers to work with for a particular launch. This doesn’t always mean working with the influencers with the biggest reach. We’ve seen some of our biggest success stories come from micro-influencer campaigns. It’s more about taking an insight-driven, creative approach to our client briefs to meet the desired results.”

Still, with so, so many different voices out there now, it’s hard to know who is best to work with – making it a potentially risky strategy for some.

“It’s getting harder to draw a clear line between all the opinion leaders,” says Warning Up’s Marc Guerrier, “whether they are media and/or influencers, because tools barely make the difference. Having access to huge databases and most of the automated platforms is like investing on the stock market. Therefore, most companies feel like they only have the choice between giving €100k to the #1 or to invest blindly. It has proven a worthless strategy for most of our clients. Making sense of this infinite and ever-changing landscape, and matching profiles with Key Performance Indicators requires the right balance of dedicated tools and market knowledge. This is why we have specialized teams at work.”

This new generation of consoles provides greater continuity than ever before, there are thousands of games already playable. What opportunities does this present? And what issues?

 

Marc Guerrier, Warning Up

The new generation of consoles is perhaps the friendliest to the concept of backwards compatibility than any we’ve seen in some time. The Xbox Series consoles in particular seem focused around continuity (hence the name, we suppose). Does this mean PRs are approaching these machines differently too?

“The opportunity is: games for the last gen can be communicated more effectively, especially with a lack of real next gen games,” says Marchsreiter Communications’ Marchsreiter. “This might change in 2021. The issue is that stores are full and soon devs even on console will struggle to stick out without PR and marketing. Game Pass and other subscription models like Prime Gaming have become hugely important, as has platform support in general. Everyone needs to have a good reveal and launch concept, especially on PC but also on console.”

This generation certainly had the weakest exclusive launch lineup of titles in a while. Not totally barren – the PS5 has Demon’s Souls, and indie titles like The Falconeer have had a chance to shine on the Xbox Series consoles. But there’s certainly little in the way of killer apps right now to appeal to those outside of the hardcore early adopter crowd.

“The new consoles hardly have any exclusive games so far and the consoles have very limited availability worldwide” says Vertigo 6’s Hendrixen. “We expect more casual gamers who bought old gen consoles during the pandemic to stick to them much longer. And core gamers to stick to or upgrade their PCs instead of waiting for new console shipments in the upcoming year.”

Renaissance’s Stefano Petrullo picks up on the challenges of a crowded market, but also addresses the different approaches Sony and Microsoft are taking this time around: “I can honestly say that I love both the new consoles, and ultimately they offer different approaches that will favour the end user. With 200-250 games releasing on Steam each and every week, however, I believe the real problem is not the number of games but what the market will become and how to navigate through it.

“Right now, we’re seeing a typical console war between PS5 and Series X|S that mirrors what we’ve been used to in some form from the Nintendo vs. Sega days onwards, but whereas in those previous eras you could usually pick a ‘winner’, this time the different approaches of both Sony and Microsoft mean it’s not a cliche to say everyone will win this time around: the different approaches lead to different objectives, and whoever sells the most this Christmas or in 2021, both PlayStation and Xbox offer viable and profitable routes to market.

“What will be vital for the future is the ability to both synchronise and indeed work with first parties in order to better serve their respective user bases, on top of exploring new avenues to reach your games through media, content creators, as well as – from 2022 onwards – physical events.”

Mike Hendrixen, Vertigo 6

As we discuss later, even if we can start moving back towards life as normal this year, there’s no guarantee we’ll all be hitting up the convention circuit just yet – presenting many of the same challenges we saw in 2020.

“The biggest challenges are the lack of shows,” says Plan of Attack’s Chris Clarke, “and the simple fact that this means a lot of highly anticipated blockbusters don’t have release dates yet – so it’s hard to set too firm a schedule when we’re trying to avoid those.

“The biggest opportunities are that the lack of shows allows for new space to fill as the press searches for content to replace these. Furthermore, people are home significantly more during the COVID crisis, so people are playing games more than ever, offering a bigger potential audience.”

Gaming had a very good year in 2020, and building upon that in 2021 is certainly a priority right now. But as Way To Blue’s Sharp points out, success attracts competition.

“I think some of the biggest challenges for the PR industry in 2021 is that it will be a more competitive space. With so many companies impacted by the pandemic, many of the bigger agencies have faced huge challenges, including large losses in terms of revenue. This has meant that everyone is trying to encroach on the gaming space (one of the key industries to thrive during the pandemic).

“This can be positive as it means exciting and fresh perspectives for gaming, offering new ways to reach mainstream audiences. However, in such a competitive space, publishers and developers want real value for their money. Therefore, I think the larger PR agencies will feel the hit more than smaller agencies who are well equipped to weather
the storm and work creatively for different client budgets”

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

 

Dieter Marchsreiter, Marchsreiter Communications

So, after a tumultuous year, filled with business successes and immense personal difficulties, who has impressed our PR experts?

“The marketing mood has changed significantly this year with campaigns focusing much more on humanity and emotion, and being much more reactive with their campaigns,” says Indigo Pearl’s Miller. “We’ve seen big brands outside the games industry taking risks and being very reactive to real life events; with some brands using social and PR ideas and content to spark whole ad campaigns.

“I think taking risks is how you get great campaigns; and measured, well thought out risks are the best kind! Take PlayStation’s London Underground takeover a couple of weeks ago. A physical stunt during a national lockdown is a risk but Sony put in the prep work to make sure the campaign could pivot to online, and they invested in the photography and comms plan to help it go viral. It had the feel of a real launch event without anyone physically seeing it, and it worked a treat.”

Sony’s PS5 launch impressed many on the panel, with Vertigo 6’s Hendrixen chipping in: “The campaign that comes to mind first is Sony’s PS5 launch in London. How do you launch a console during a global pandemic?

“Swapping the underground signs with the PlayStation icons got global traction, whereas the launch of the new Xbox was nearly invisible. Sony’s concept was so simple that it was brilliant. Kudos to Sony and their UK agency!”

The industry’s success this year has allowed us to help out those who are struggling most, particularly those who have been on the frontlines of fighting this pandemic. Bastion’s Barrett has especially warm words for one company in particular.

“Two campaigns this year highlighted what an amazing industry this is. Ukie’s Codes for Carers campaign, providing free game codes for NHS staff at the start of the pandemic, was incredibly humbling to work on, and demonstrated the enormous generosity and kindness within the industry. And prior to that, Ukie’s Get Smart About PLAY campaign also demonstrated what the industry can achieve together, creating national news and debate, and proving to the world that we, as an industry, take the trust that players and their families give us, very seriously indeed.”

How did the lack of events impact you this last year and do you think they’ll bounce back in 2021?

 

Caroline Miller, Indigo Pearl

2020 has meant more than just working from home, of course. COVID-19 has shut down all major gaming events, and even with vaccines slowly rolling out, it’s going to be a long time before we’re all packed together in a noisy, crowded exhibition centre. How is the PR sector coping with this loss?

“Events provide powerful images and storytelling that most potential ‘channels’ – media, social media and influencers – thrive on,” says Warning Up’s Guerrier.

“The pandemic has made it a gloomy and ‘flattened’ year instead of being the expected rollercoaster and fireworks. Although streaming and digital channels have been an efficient alternative option, nothing (yet) has the same emotional impact as real life communications.?

“We do hope events will make a comeback in the Summer of 2021, but it will probably take years for the industry to commit to events at the same scale and with the same resources. Furthermore, digital components will have a predominant role in what future events will be and how the prime KPI is impacted.”

As always, in any major change lies opportunity. There’s certainly an argument that the loss of major events dominated by triple-A titles has given more space for indies to breathe this year, as indeed Clarke from Plan of Attack states:

“It’s worth noting that without the big shows like E3, Gamescom, and GDC happening, there aren’t the usual glut of major showcases that usually soak up all the oxygen in the room. This leaves a big void for media outlets and influencers to fill, which is great for indies. Games that might have fallen through the cracks in lieu of big blockbusters at shows like E3 or Gamescom were instead picked up by huge outlets like IGN and GameSpot as part of their replacement showcases.”

Still, the rush to digital events has felt like the year has been one non-stop event. There’s people doing some great work – but it can be hard to keep track these days.

“Well, I think I’d actually argue there’s probably too many events this year, rather than a lack of them” says Renaissance’s Petrullo. “Almost every event has gone digital and, on top of those who already had a digital presence, it’s been hard to weigh up just what the return-on-investment will be for each one. With a physical event you tend to have attendance figures for previous years and other data, but this year everyone has essentially been starting from square one.

“At last count, I think around 194 events happened in 2020, 145 of which were digital. Normally, you’d have two to four big events where the industry tries to grab a share of the noise, but this year, there are events weekly, almost daily sometimes. While that means there are more opportunities for developers that, in general, cost less to secure, the reach of each one is both indeterminable beforehand and – without naming any specific events – in many cases a lot smaller than the physical alternative. On top of that, the pandemic has meant there are less journalists covering each one, leading to a run of small events with much smaller impact than the traditional tentpoles of GDC, E3, and Gamescom.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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