This was originally a GAP blog, but it garnered little attention at the time; part of the problem with GAP blogs is that they get buried so quickly when big news developments break that many people never see them, and once they hit about page 3, they’re generally out of sight forever. I put effort into it, so I might as well put it somewhere.

I’ll preface this blog by saying I know nothing about the PR business and know nobody who does. If anyone has experience in the field, I look forward to you pointing out how wrong I am.

It seems to me there’s a major disconnect between reality and public relations. It’s common to many companies, though I’m of course thinking of the big 3 at the moment. All have their moments, both good and bad, but usually far more bad. I think the principle problem is the ‘net. Think back 15 years, if you’re able. We lived in a world where computers were quite commonplace, but still unconnected, save the few of us who were into local BBS modemming. We got all our news from print and broadcast media. Up until that time, the job of a PR department was to keep the press up-to-date with information about products and to answer questions from the press on newsworthy issues.

Those issues usually had to do with the financial state of the company, not with products in development; most PR people wouldn’t have known the first thing about R&D, and just flatly told those in the tech press “no comment”, which itself isn’t remotely newsworthy. Only if something as major as the 360 failure rate (which had a huge financial impact) happened would they be forced to field technical questions. But today, they face a huge problem; it’s almost impossible to keep anything secret. All it takes is one inside leak, sure, but more important, the reporter is becoming edged out by the collective hive that is the internet community. Apple files a patent; it immediately becomes available to the internet at large; dozens of people speculate what the patent could be applied to; one or more smart people who work in fields related to the patent make compelling arguments, get dugg, slashdotted, twittered, and re-blogged. This all happens in hours, if not minutes.

Now, PR has to field questions not just from the mainstream media, but endless bloggers and just interested customers. And all of them are now armed with good speculative data from qualified sources that none of them had to pay a cent for, beyond their broadband connection. With that speculative data the questions are going to be direct, pointed. Here’s the problem for PR. Large companies need large PR staff. Many of those hired are not going to be trusted enough or qualified enough to be briefed on future R&D plans. Most only know what they’ve been briefed to cover, so they have to issue rote statements.

I’m not saying that PR are stupid. Their job is to be strongly optimistic about the state of the company and its projects in order to maintain confidence in their customers and, especially, shareholders. That’s pretty easy when things are going really well, but it’s harder when things aren’t going as well. That’s when price-drop rumours and leaked Best Buy ads cause nightmares. But even when things are going well, there’s still questions about wanted features, additions, upcoming games, etc. It’s a tough job to have to stonewall inquiries which you may not even know the answer to anyway. You have to be knowledgeable about the existing products in order to coherently dodge questions you can’t answer.

Inevitably, with the size of these departments, someone in PR says something stupid, almost always by accident, often because they’re not familiar enough with the fine points of the industry, sometimes because it all happens so fast they’re not prepared. And the slashdot/digg effect then takes its second toll, as their comment, once confined to a publication or two in most cases, gets widely spread and roundly ridiculed. It seems to me that most of these PR people even read Digg or other sites that spread these rumours and stories; they act surprised when it comes up 3 days later at a press conference, while simply checking the front page of Digg would have briefed them far better than their department did.

Microsoft has partly shown the way, with Larry Hryb, aka. Major Nelson. Director of programming and de facto spokesman for XBL (as most of you know), the guy is fully immersed in the internet subculture, but despite being a MS employee, is just a gamer. He regularly talks about and praises PS3 and Wii games he’s playing, and never, in my limited experience, acts a bit fanboyish or catty towards his employer’s competitors. You also rarely see him in the mainstream media; he’s almost exclusively an internet figure, whose twitters, weekly podcasts and blog keep the XBL world very up to date on what’s going on.

I’d really love to see Sony get a similar person out there; though the Playstation blog is a good start, it still sometimes reads and feels too “corporate”, and I can’t think of one person whose voice it seems to represent. They need someone writing that blog, podcasting, and discussing the gaming world while openly discussing, and not trashing on, the competiton; someone who’s playing lots of games on all the consoles, and not because it’s their job; someone who can field the technical questions because they are as abreast of developments as anyone else on the internet and have the answers a dedicated gamer would have. It would go far towards improving the relationship Sony has with the internet pseudo-media, who rarely treat Sony kindly.

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