A game journalist’s job, stripped down and simplified, is to write entertainingly & informatively about products in as unbiased a way as possible. A game PR’s job, likewise truncated and simplified, is to introduce as much bias as possible into the media in favour of their clients.
They might be friends across the divide. They might share loves of certain games, journalists might fundamentally adore all the work a certain company puts out, they might really like getting free stuff, and if you’re a PR you might justifiably believe what you do is about getting your games or platforms the publicity they deserve. But none of that changes the nature of the relationship.
You don’t have to receive cash, as a journalist, to be bought and sold by PRs; as a PR, you don’t need to intend to cause someone a conflict of interest in order to do it. There’s a sliding scale, of course, between a review copy and a mini figure and a special limited edition set and a trip to Turkey where you get vomit in your ears. Journalists need games to do their jobs. Sometimes they can’t get access without going on a press trip. But if expensive trips with buckets of free food and booze had to be paid for out of pocket, journalists and their employers wouldn’t pay. If they didn’t work in favour of PR goals – to bias and increase coverage – PRs and game publishers wouldn’t pay either. They don’t always work on everyone who goes, but if they didn’t work at all it’s a fair bet they wouldn’t happen. And those trips are just as much about relationship building and making friends across the divide as they are about anything else. They’re about breaking down the professional line and making it harder to publish something negative, as much as they’re about making it easier to publish something positive. After all, who wants to disappoint their friends?
Journos might not think they’re biased, and might not like it if people think they look that way. They might not love that their business model is mostly driven by advertising, and that they have to cover the same games that advertise next to their words. PRs – especially those with journalism backgrounds – might not like that their job is essentially to persuade journos to do stuff they otherwise wouldn’t. But that’s how it works. That is literally what they are being paid to do. At the very least, that should be a conscious thought in the minds of both parties.
If you’re a journalist with access and PRs want to woo you, it’s because they think they can influence you. Or perhaps, these days, just because that’s how things work – people, until last week, had all but stopped questioning it. There is big money riding on everyone keeping up the facade of normality over what is, when you break it down, not a normal process or set of relationships. That’s even leaving aside the potential job in PR that waits for many journalists, when they finally get sick of the uncertainty and the poor pay – and the possibility of upsetting a potential employer is another biasing factor.
There’s no easy way to “fix” this on a wide level; every media organisation has to set its own standards, and enforce them. But if you’re a journalist or a PR, some advice that you can take or leave as you please: work out where your line is, and reject stuff that crosses it. Don’t be surprised when other people draw their lines in different places. And if you’re called on to defend how your behaviour appears, make sure you can do it honestly.
A note on me: I am a journalist, working in digital production for the Guardian, who writes occasionally about video (and other sorts of) games. I’m married to a freelance games journalist. We also design live games, which don’t really have much of a PR budget. I’m writing this from that personal perspective, which is relatively distant from the games journalism industry, in that I don’t do it full-time, don’t really get paid for it, and don’t tend to get invited to big PR events. Keith Stuart’s take on this for the Guardian is here.
Full disclosure: A game PR bought me a bottle of Savannah dry cider once, but I don’t remember who it was. Grant informs me it was someone working for Namco Bandai.