Though, certainly, some do threaten, if not bribe or kill. Some even follow through on their threats. “Though it's unlikely entire corporate entities are capable of holding grudges,” says Gray, “it's easy for an individual PR representative with some modicum of power to throw down the ultimate hammer of stoppage and ruin an editor's day. I am not saying every single PR person is like this, but this stuff does happen on occasion.” It's called blackballing. When a publisher doesn't like the coverage they've received, they might decide to block access to information about their games, decline to send review copies, or refuse to set up interviews with their developers and executives.
Retaliation against the press was common practice at the house that Grand Theft Auto built. “That's all we ever did at Rockstar,” says Zuniga. “Even the lamest line of text that didn't praise the game would be viewed as a sleight. If a preview read 99.9% positive, they'd labor over how to 'fix' that .1%. It was ridiculous and frustrating. 'Ban IGN, let's go with 1up! Wait, 1up said something .2% bad—ban 1up! GameSpot's already banned—what now?' It just felt like the blind leading the blind.”
You don't have to say something negative about a company's products to get permanently disinvited from their Christmas party. Sometimes, the far greater crime is digging for your own stories, leaving the confines of the marketing plan for the wilderness of investigative reporting. Game weblog Kotaku did just that at the beginning of April this year, when—days before being officially announced at the Game Developers Conference (GDC)—the site posted a story about a new online service for the PlayStation 3 called PlayStation Home, against heavy protest from Sony.
“It was information we discovered on our own, through our own sources,” says Kotaku's editor Brian Crecente. “I contacted Sony, like we do with any rumor story, whoever the company involved, and asked them to comment.... About ten minutes later, I received an e-mail from [Senior Director of Corporate Communications] David Karraker, essentially saying that we shouldn't run the story because it would hurt our relationship with them. I said, basically, 'OK, I understand, but I'm afraid we're still going to have to do this, because we work for our readers, not for Sony.'”
Sony's Phil Harrison introducing Home at GDC
Crecente, who'd spent years as a police beat reporter for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado, followed the appropriate protocol, highlighting the fact that his information was from a single, anonymous source. “I went to great pains, because they were so worried about this story, to make sure that people really understood where the information was coming from and could form their own judgment about whether or not they should trust this story.” Sony, however, seemed to be concerned less with the accuracy of the information and more with Kotaku stealing their planned marketing thunder. “Shortly after that story ran, I received a letter from Karraker that was an official—he didn't use the word blackball—but it was an official blackballing of Kotaku. That's the e-mail I posted.”
From Karraker's e-mail: “...I am very disappointed that after trying to work with you as closely as possible and provide you and your team with access and information, you chose to report on this rumor.... I can't defend outlets that can't work cooperatively with us. So, it is for this reason that we will be canceling all further interviews for Kotaku staff at GDC and will be dis-inviting you to our media event next Tuesday. Until we can find a way to work better together, information provided to your site will only be that found in the public forum....”