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Each PR person has a different approach to image building and there are new strategies coming out every day, but some rules have to be followed. These are the ones I would like to point out. Of course, having an incredibly good game is a great starting point to build a good image, but we will be focusing on communication factors for the purposes of this article.
Step 1: Define your objectives.
Even if you run a company with unlimited resources and are the lucky owner of a time machine, you can't make everybody like you. Besides, having a "good" image is always a matter of perspective, so defining your audience and your goals is a necessary start before doing anything else in this domain.
Step 2: Know your public.
Now you have defined your objectives and audience, you will need to know them. Who are they? What do they like? Which ideas do they follow? What do they do for fun, and what causes do they support? Collect all the information you can about them and the topics on which you are likely to open a discussion with them. When studying PR plans on a global stage, remember that your audience might have cultural differences with yourself, so don't forget to study local history and get insights from contacts in foreign countries.
Step 3: Choose your weapons.
Image-building is not about selling games; it's about gaining entry to people's hearts, not to their wallets. The hearts and minds of human beings are very complex things, and there are many ways to enter. Depending on your objectives and audience you target, your company might want to get involved in a charity for children or the protection of an endangered species -- but it might as well be a more relevant choice to raise your voice against DRM, support the open source community, support your older releases, show your establishment in foreign countries and your dedication to the local populations, etc.
There are many ways to get involved, and none is bad. The most difficult task is to find which one is yours. When choosing what you want to do, keep in mind what you know about your audience, and what you are as a company. When your engagement and your public's interests are the same, you know that you have found a ground where you can create a discussion and work together.
Once you went through these three steps, you're ready to go and jump in the real world. Here is some advice that you should keep in mind at all times while doing it:
Public relations is not about selling games. Brand building doesn't stop when the game is out; it goes on for years and years -- as long as your company is in operation. If you start a charity operation only to get better visibility, think twice about doing it, because something will go wrong eventually. You have to remain faithful to your engagements on the long term. The first thing that people will think will be, "They're trying to get some more visibility, but they're not really committed." Only in the long run will your commitment be recognized. It will require a lot of effort and investment, but in the end, it will be worth it -- one way or another.
Don't even think about hiding something. For example, say your CEO's wife is leading a charity for young children and he would like to invest in it to improve the company's image -- but he would prefer that nobody know that his wife is running it. If they have an interest in it, people will find out, soon or later. If you have been hiding information, people will look for the catch -- even if there is none. If you don't feel secure enough to be transparent, then the public has no reason to think you are trustworthy, no matter how much good you do.
The first rule of communication is "you cannot not communicate." Even creating a blackout of all external communications sends a message to the public. So you should communicate, and furthermore if you have good news, tell the world. Also, don't forget that communication is a two-way process, and gathering the feedback from your users is the best way to improve.
The video games industry is a very small world. Big media announcements talking about billions of dollars create a contorted perception of its size, but the truth is that people come to know each other very fast and rumors spread faster than the flu -- and they might have more direct impact on your business. At the end of the day, industry people are just another audience you have to include in your PR equation, so the previous paragraphs remain relevant -- but additional concerns have to be taken into consideration.
HR issues are the most obvious reason to polish your company's image within the industry. Besides salary and other benefits, the image of a company is something people look at before signing a contract. It is important to reduce the turnover of employees, as people are more likely to work with a positive mind if they adhere to the same ideas and projects as the company.
But besides pure HR concerns, it remains very important to maintain a good company and brand image within the industry. Obviously, the people working in the industry are some of the most passionate people about video games. They play, they develop, they talk about what they like and what they don't like. They are community leaders. Information and rumors spread very fast within the industry, and if your company's image is good among professionals, this will have an impact on your public image.
The impact of corporate communication on public image hasn't been really measured yet, but some tips might help manage image building in this situation:
As elsewhere, communication is the key. The games industry has a lot of communication channels, whether it would be professional websites like Gamasutra.com, GamesIndustry.biz, GamesDevelopers.ie, etc., public events, professional events, conferences, etc. All of these communication channels are good occasions to meet other fellow professionals and improve your company and brand image. Public talks are especially good as they are sometimes relayed in public specialised media, which have important impact on your public image as well.
Jamie McCormick, English Marketing Manager at Gala Networks Europe, during a lecture made for the games development community in Ireland
This could be included in the first tip, and most of you might already do it. Sharing information and methods is a good part of image-building within the games industry, but is often very difficult. Nobody wants to give secrets to competitors, and there is no perfect rule to know when it is good to share news and when it is not. The ideal would be to find a good balance between keeping secret an idea that would give you a competitive advantage, and closing the gates to external queries. Games developers form a community, and you don't want to be left out.
Don't fear the networks
Many companies fear their employees' need for networking, because they are afraid it might open a channel for competitors to hire them. Well, to be honest, it will -- but forbidding people to be part of the games development community has never been and will never be a good idea. It will in no way be useful to keep talent. The best tool you have to keep your staff in your company is to keep them happy! Happy employees with good networks quickly spread the word of a company that is doing well.
Image building is a science important enough to have full teams working on it within the biggest companies; the past few lines just give the very basis of what should be done. Image building, even if people don't always call it that, is probably the most important part of public relations, because whatever you do has an impact on your image and should be considered in that light.