Cary Kwok has been handling public relations since 1999, focusing specifically on video games since 2006. A lot has changed in that time.
“Doing PR almost 20 years ago was still very focused on core gamers,” she tells GamesIndustry.biz. “It was working games enthusiast media to make sure that the game was front and centre, making sure we had great Metacritic scores. Being able to speak to the core was very important. But fast forward to 2022, there are still a lot of people who wouldn’t self identify as gamers but are playing video games. The audience has dramatically changed.”
For the first 11 years of her time in this sector, Kwok worked for Golin representing Nintendo through the transformative Wii era, before joining Rogers & Carr to spend five years handling Activision Blizzard’s lifestyle PR. In October, she left this team to join BerlinRosen to guide its first steps into the games industry.
“After the end of last year, with everything going on with Activision, I just felt like I needed a change and needed to do something different,” she says. “I took this as a great opportunity as it’s time to do games PR differently, not the same old same old.
“I think that this is a time where the games industry needs something different, and I feel we need to collectively just bring different elements to the table for the industry.”
For a start, games PR teams face a wider array of challenges than in decades past. The series of reports exposing toxic workplaces and other issues at companies ranging from AAA giants like Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft to indie darlings like Fullbright means that PR teams need to, rather than promoting video games, help these firms convey what they’re doing to address the issues and repair their reputation. While still promoting video games.
Kwok’s advice to any company facing such scrutiny is that, where possible, “prevention is better than management in terms of crisis.”
“There are still skeletons in companies where it’s being slowly uncovered,” she says. “You have to own up to it. PR is all about messaging, but not about lying or spinning. If it is in fact the truth that’s been told, I think it’s really important for the company to own up to it and not try to deflect or try to use something else to cover it up and redirect peoples’ attention. It is what it is.
“If you keep saying ‘I’m going to do better and we’re putting all these things in place’ as checkboxes and not necessarily as a sincere effort to improve the situation, you’re just delaying the communication, you’re delaying the storytelling. You might buy yourself a couple of rounds of news, but eventually people are going to come back and check back on you. The story isn’t going to go away. Brands just need to recognise that if you did something unfortunate in the past that needs to be corrected, correct it. As human beings, we’re not expecting perfection — especially within the games industry at this point — but we’re looking and eagerly seeking improvement and changes.”
Inevitably, such companies are going to need to run PR for their upcoming games; they’re still a business, and businesses need to sell products. But when promoting upcoming games, questions will inevitably come up from the media — and that, Kwok says, is how it should be.
“Brands just need to recognise that if you did something unfortunate in the past that needs to be corrected, correct it”
“When people are looking at your game, they’re looking at who you are as a brand and all the stuff that you are doing with your employees,” she says. “As a brand you should expect that, and every time it comes up, you need to make sure that you are consciously putting great efforts behind improving the situation so that when a reporter asks ‘What are you doing about that situation?’ and you genuinely have some good progress to share, it’s a chance to share that with the larger public to show you are genuinely changing and trying to improve.”
Reflecting on her own experience representing Activision Blizzard, Kwok says the situation was “sprung on us… no one expected it.” The most immediate task was aligning how to approach things — which is especially important when issues around your company are being covered so widely.
“Employees are reading stories every day, as much as reporters are asking those questions, so what’s being told internally — whether it’s through Slack channels or internal emails — versus how executives are communicating externally with media, that is extremely important,” she says. “I feel they have done an amazing job in that. It’s still a work in progress in how they are committing to doing better things, I do believe they have. Are they at the point where they are getting back on the right track? It’s subjective depending on who you talk to.
“It’s a slow process to rebuild a brand, which is why being able to prevent it in the first place is that much more important than trying to fix it afterwards. It’s going to take you a year a build a brand, but it’ll take ten years to rebuild it when something like this happens.”
Another PR challenge is whether or not to take a stance on broader, non-gaming issues. This year alone we’ve seen publishers and developers speak out against the invasion of Ukraine and the overturning of abortion rights in the US. Games firms are becoming much more active in speaking up on political and sensitive issues, but this needs to be handled the right way.
“Brands have a tendency to jump in and just go for it, because they feel they are expected to say something,” says Kwok. “But making sure that your stance on a particular topic is true to who you are and that you can back it up with what you said you believe in and that your action is just as loud as your words — all that is really important. It might not be as important as before where it wasn’t a focus area in the past for games PR but it’s absolutely a must.”
Even without these challenges, the role of PR has expanded as the audience for video games has grown — something Kwok has been dealing with since her time working with Nintendo. The platform holder’s mission, especially during the Wii and DS era, was to bring gaming to the masses.
“Unfortunately, it took a pandemic for it to truly mainstream in the way we imagined it would,” she says.
This, she says, necessitates further change in how PR is handled. In her experience, games firms typically split who is handling their communications, often into a team for corporate comms, one for internal comms, and one handling product PR. But with a much broader audience – or, perhaps more accurately, so many audiences — this may no longer be the ideal approach.
“Brands have a tendency to jump in and just go for it, because they feel they are expected to say something. But it’s important your stance is true to who you are”
“It’s hyper critical now to make sure you have one cohesive function that is overlooking the different audiences, or all these different aspects need to be in much closer contact when they are communicating for the benefit of cohesive storytelling — regardless of whether you are telling your employee the story or whether you are telling the fan,” she says.
She continues: “How do you tell a story about gaming and a game and the studio behind it while making sure that it gets in front of as many different kinds of audience as possible?”
While the gaming audience has expanded, Kwok emphasises that approaching the core audience through enthusiast and specialist games media is still important — even in an age where publishers can promote games directly to consumers or are courting YouTubers, Twitch streamers and other influencers to act as evangelists.
“Your core gaming audience is still very used to going to core gaming enthusiast media to get their feedback, their scores, their reviews and understanding how their peers are looking at a particular title,” she says. “It does have its value, absolutely. Even though the games audience has expanded, you still have your core audience as the early adopters for any games, especially franchise fans.
“I do think there is a need for other types of media, or even potentially more enthusiast media, to be able to speak to the wider audience knowing and recognising that the audience is very different to what it used to be — perhaps expanding more into mobile gaming coverage. Mobile had a hard time even getting your top tier gaming enthusiast media’s attention for many years, but mobile is much more significant than it used to be and much more core than it used to be.”
Again, Kwok emphasises how much the games audiences have changed, as well as the need for a diverse range of voices on your team to help better understand how to reach those audiences.
“You need to make sure you are speaking to them from the beginning,” she says. “You need the same level of diversity internally as you are planning your messages in order to reach that larger audience.
“This industry has been very male-dominated and we know that. I’m glad to see more pockets of efforts to bring in that diversity. Honestly, as an individual, I have never been able to be so loud about who I am, as an Asian American woman who works on the agency side and I really feel like I should leverage my experience to help clients. I felt like I have always had to minimise who I am and try to not look different, to fit into this core gaming audience world. But it is a good sign that after 20 years, I feel comfortable showing who I truly am and why I earned this seat at the table and why this is important to me.”