The Value of a Good PR Junket

Sometime shortly after September 11, 2001, the business of the video game industry changed. Unlike an earthquake that turns a crevice in the ground into a canyon, this American event shifted the plates underneath the ground, re-arranging pieces of the landscape.

Americans on the whole examined their daily lives and mourned the losses of those folks who died senselessly in New York. They examined the language they used. New military terms were introduced and became more familiar while, conversely, they were also examined more closely in everyday language. Many journalists thought twice about the terms “headshot,” “sniping,” and “blowing the shit out that guy.”

Well, OK, maybe some of thought about it…

Along with Los Angeles Times’ writer Alex Pham’s examination of PR junkets and a particular freelance writer’s “excessive” lifestyle, which explored the potential hazards of industry writers and their relationships with public relation teams, things got real quiet on the PR front. Road trips, big-time PR spectacles, and ATV events vanished. As the country settled into a new reality, the video game industry’s events slowly but surely returned, if only a little more reserved.

zebrahummers

Junkets don't have to involve zebra-striped Hummer limos to be valuable and worthwhile. In fact, please, no more zebra-striped hummers. Please?

While no US citizen thought the September 11 attacks were a good thing (just ask the families whose relatives and friends died), the attack, in retrospect, made us examine our practices and values. And the trivial matter of a simple PR road trip designed to promote a game was among those things. Is an extravagant trip necessary? Is it in good taste? Does it exaggerate the violence in the game?

There is not a single junket where riding in a Hummer limousine made me feel anything but a false sense of self value. They were all fun and I appreciated the rides, but whatever games they were pimping weren’t affected in the slightest by that fleeting sense of the high life.

Several trips–including one of the best PR trips of my life, which was organized by former PR manager Mr. Matt Frary when he worked at Atari Games before they imploded–were simply incredible experiences in and of themselves. This particular Atari trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, involved game journalists who saw two days worth of games (Driv3r, Transformers, etc.) while residing at a huge beach side resort in perfect weather. In between seeing games all day, during lunch and at night we lounged in a giant pool with a built-in bar that overlooked the beach. All drinks were charged to room 125 (Matt Frary’s room, of course!). Thank goodness, Atari decided to set an embargo date for three days afterward. The Internet connections were terrible and for those of us who stayed out late partying, we were in no shape to write a decent, legible sentence.

I will always appreciate that trip because the setting was beautiful and we were treated to a slice of paradise. I’m sorry, but drinking free unlimited margaritas in a pool by the beach in 85 degree weather is really fucking fun.

Could this trip have been organized in a simple hotel in Los Angeles without the frills? Yes. Would it have been as fun? No. And, perhaps equally worth questioning, would as many people have attended? Also, did Atari create a better image for itself and by association, one for Atari? Nah. Driv3r had the potential to be good, but it ended up being shit.

My thinking is that Atari got to spend quality time with journalists, and by spending that time, got them to think and spend time with their games. They also got dozens of stories and video pieces written about their products. The attending journalists got better insights into games that brought their sites traffic and readers. The revolution was complete.

In this case, the personal experience was greater than the professional experience, and the lasting value equaled a slew of coverage, and I think I got to like and value Matt Frary a whole lot more.

Driv3r didn't live up to the hype. (Image courtesy of IGN)

Driv3r didn't live up to the hype. (Image courtesy of IGN)

But I know just as many journalists who wouldn’t attend such an event because it was either a waste of time or it was against their journalistic ethics. More significantly, they would declare it as the “problem” with video game PR and game journalism. To that I simply say, bah! When Driv3r came out (I still hate that damned 3), I gave it a 5.5 out of 10 and Atari pulled its ads from IGN. If game journalists or game writers can’t separate the wheat from the chaff, and they’re swayed by a few drinks, a limo ride, or a free t-shirt, they’d better pick another profession. If a game sucks, it sucks. If it’s good, it’s good. And any PR person who dares to try and sway your review score should also jump ship, too.

I would venture to say there is great value in the PR junket, the PR outing, and the three-day trip to some crazy desert in Arizona (which I have been to twice for said events). But PR folks have to pick their place well and the event, and in my humble opinion, it has to provide intrinsic value and information about the game.

I remember IGN writer Steve Butts telling me with great appreciation (and exhaustion) that the Medal of Honor Pacific Assault boot camp event he attended was incredible. It gave him a direct insight into being a new soldier. He had the sunburn and blisters to prove it. This event took place in 2003 or 2004 and basically put journalists in real boot camp, running all day while wearing backpacks, shooting targets, and sleeping out in the open desert. The event created for journalists a sense of what it felt like to be a soldier and therefore provided an insight into the game, which in turn put value on presenting military authenticity.

Similarly, when I met Capt. Dale Dye in person at an EA event in Fort Mason promoting Medal of Honor 2 for PlayStation, I learned what I considered a great deal about military strategy. Dye, a retired U.S. army captain who has served as a consultant on military movies such as Saving Private Ryan, was hired as a consultant to Medal of Honor 2. Dye talked about the importance of attacking (having an entrance strategy), but also having a plan to complete the venture (having an exit strategy). He also revealed what it was like to fight in Vietnam in hand to hand combat, a grisly scenario of few bullets and one grenade and sheer smart timing–a scenario in which he lived to talk about it.

Had I not attended, I would have not met Dye. Also I would not have learned from his experiences, which I applied to all future World War II shooters and military based games.

Of course I have been to dozens of stupid, wasteful, and annoying trips. In many of those cases, I would have been more happy to simply receive a disc packed with information, screenshots, and videos. I can think of a half dozen Sony, Activision, Take Two, and Atari trips that were lavish and didn’t provide good people to interview or background data to inform my stories. The aforementioned Atari trip to Mexico was more fun than it was useful.

While this article might seem like a good excuse to reminisce about a great trip to Mexico, PR junkets can be a valuable tool for both the journalist and the PR manager. If video game events, junkets, and even spectacles are well thought out and are tied intrinsically to the game, they can inform and educate the press. Many don’t, but a good junket can provide a different perspective to a game that a poorly-paid, overworked game writer might not have considered. And, hopefully while said junkets are providing new insights, they’re a little fun, too.

ED NOTE: PR whiz Tom Ohle has just launched a new blog called EvolutionOfPR, in which this topic and many others revolving around the growth of public relations are discussed; it’s definitely worth a look.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “The Value of a Good PR Junket

  1. Pingback: The Evolution of PR » The Value of a Good PR Junket

  2. Pingback: The Value of a Good PR Junket « GameInsano.com « Public Relation

  3. Joe

    To summarize: “I am a whore, and I like it! LOL!”

    What an embarrassing post.

  4. Douglass Perry

    Ah yes, I figured the eventual loveliness that is the Internet would eventually make such a criticism. I guess if that’s all you want to–or can–read into this story, well then, have at it. But you’re missing the point, which is that junkets exist for a reason, part of that is to promote, in this case, a game, and part of that is because there is a need know, by the public, to ascertain that information.

  5. Really?

    Stunning.

    Anyhow, here’s a thought: the average person reading a MOH review likely hasn’t been to boot camp, or anything like it. Shouldn’t you be more or less in the same boat as your audience? Besides, players aren’t going to care if a game is strategically authentic — what do they know of war? — they’re going to care if it’s engaging in some way, and that’s your job to discuss as a writer…not someone half-assedly trained for an afternoon.

    I really don’t think it’s any great mystery why junkets exist (I mean, c’mon), though it’s very disheartening to see that some people delude themselves into thinking it’s making them a better reviewer somehow.

    I agree that some people are too uptight about not being friendly with PR, but MAN is this the wrong way to go about it.

    • Douglass Perry

      Stunning, indeed. Seems like regardless of what I might say or think, you have already made up your mind.

      Still, the boot camp is a perfect example of a good junket because it gave game writers and journalists the opportunity to see things from a different perspective (if not to kick their ass a little.) Given the designer’s intent on creating authenticity, the event matched the game’s goals.

      The title of the article is “The Value of a Good PR Junket.” Not, “Junkets Are for Whores!” In which case, 90% of the journalists, writers, and freelancers who work in any type of entertainment field, be it games, movies, comics, etc., are whores. Not sure I agree with you there. But feel free to write that one if you’d like.

      Also, I’m not defending junkets as a whole. I often found myself wishing I wasn’t on four junkets in a row in four days, and wished there was another way to get this information. In the article, I state there are good ones and bad ones. In the bad ones, I tried to make the best out of the situations I was in. And that’s why when a publisher invites you to an interesting, valuable one, you appreciate it more.

  6. Wally

    But your job as a games journalist isn’t to “promote” games; it’s to cover games in meaningful ways. Your overstated acceptance of these events, and your comment above, read as though you believe yourself an extension of game PR. Yes, games are coming out, and the public wants to know about them (since that’s the reason people read magazines and browse websites), but you appear to characterize the games press as a glorified fact-sheet regurgitator. As a wise man once said, “You do not work in the games industry. You work in the press, and cover games.”

    How much detailed insight could you possibly have into military strategy after meeting some retired military dude at an event? “Duck and cover, use suppression fire”? The “you’re gaining valuable insight into the source material of the game, which will be useful to you in your review” is a PR construct for subtly convincing you to assign an arbitrarily juiced score when you wouldn’t otherwise. Believe it or not, those people aren’t as concerned with the things they say they’re concerned with — they’re there to manipulate positive coverage as much as they can. And if they think a lavish boondoggle in Mexico will do the trick for a few people, they’ll spend the time and money on it.

    Do everyone who’s reading your reviews a favor: Play the game in question as any other person would, and judge it on its own merits. One not need to be a military expert to appreciate and critique a tactical shooter. It doesn’t matter how authentic it is to real life, and your audience sure isn’t going to glean the authenticity or lack thereof because you spent a day in a room with a professional.

    I hate to point my finger at Roger Ebert (it’ll probably make me sound more pretentious than I am trying to, and I apologize), but that dude has some of the most sound ethics I’ve ever seen in a critic. Judging from this blog post, you’re the polar opposite.

    • Douglass Perry

      Thanks for writing in.

      Since I have gone to journalism school and written for The Point Reyes Light, the Alameda Journal, the SF Bay Guardian, CNN, Edge, Edge-Online, Next Generation, GameTap, PlayStation: The Official Magazine, GameDaily, IGN, and several other sites, I have a practical and grounded understanding of what it means to be a journalist.

      The trouble this: junkets exist. They are a reality. I accept they exist, and that there are good and bad ones. If you work in the video game industry, the movie industry, or the tech industry, they exist. Sure, journalists can ignore them. They then miss out on avenues of attaining information, which is what readers want. If you miss a junket and that is the only time in which that specific information is available, you miss the information. And your readers do too. Or they go somewhere elsewhere. My article states the difference and points in ways in which junkets, whether you or I like them or not, can have value.

      To point to the article again, the reason I mentioned Driv3r is because the Mexico junket didn’t influence my review of the game, which got a 5.5 out of 10.

      “If a game sucks, it sucks. If it’s good, it’s good. And any PR person who dares to try and sway your review score should also jump ship, too.

      “I would venture to say there is great value in the PR junket, the PR outing, and the three-day trip to some crazy desert in Arizona (which I have been to twice for said events). But PR folks have to pick their place well and the event, and in my humble opinion, it has to provide intrinsic value and information about the game.”

      • Wally

        Doug — in response to your earlier comments:

        “Sure, journalists can ignore them. They then miss out on avenues of attaining information, which is what readers want. If you miss a junket and that is the only time in which that specific information is available, you miss the information. And your readers do too. Or they go somewhere elsewhere. My article states the difference and points in ways in which junkets, whether you or I like them or not, can have value.

        “To point to the article again, the reason I mentioned Driv3r is because the Mexico junket didn’t influence my review of the game, which got a 5.5 out of 10.”

        If you’re “missing” information because you didn’t go to a junket, you’ve failed at exploring other avenues of pursuing quality coverage. Plenty of gaming pubs have habitually passed on the paint-by-numbers coverage cycles that PR creates; it sounds to me like you’re content to let your coverage be victimized by it.

        As far as junkets influencing scores — what if you’d loved the game and given it a perfect score? Who’s to say you hadn’t been swayed then? The perception is that you COULD have been. Perception of impropriety is just as bad as actual impropriety. As someone who went to journalism school and wrote for the numerous publications you listed, shouldn’t you ought to know that?

  7. Debbie

    Let’s see…

    Junkets are whorish, and you want to justify your whoring.

    Epic fail.

    • Douglass Perry

      Junkets can suck, big time. In many cases, they are a necessary evil.

      But if a publisher provides relevant, timely information during a junket, wherein a journalist can interview the designer, speak to the game’s artists, the audio engineers, and get better insight into said game, and don’t provide those details any other time, they can be worth it.

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