Duke Nukem escapade exposes blacklisting as a common practice that must stop

Posted on June 21, 2011 1:21 pm by | Ethics | Media | PR | Twitter

Duke NukemOne of the more distressing aspects of the recent Duke Nukem Forever dustup had nothing to do with Jim Redner‘s ill-advised tweet threatening to blacklist those who penned what he deemed particularly savage negative reviews.

Between Redner (who lost his biggest client as a result), New Media Strategies (which was fired from the Chrysler account over a similarly misguided tweet), former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner (who resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives over tweets he should never have sent) and a Ketchum Communications exec who tweeted his distaste for the City of Memphis after landing there for a client meeting (a tweet read by the client, FedEx), it’s clear we’ll continue to see headlines about people who pull the status update trigger before engaging their brains. Effective training may reduce the number of instances, but there are just too many people working in the field with access to Twitter to ensure a steady stream of such incidents.

No, what bothered me most about the Duke Nukem Forever tale was the number of people who noted, almost as a casual aside, that the tweet made public what has been going on behind the scenes for years: blacklisting game reviewers as punishment for negative reviews.

AdAge referred to “the unspoken yet common practice of blacklisting journalists.” ZDNet began its article, “PR agency blacklists are nothing new in the tech media business. Upset the wrong people at the wrong time and you, as a journalist, can find yourself in a black hole the next time it comes to needing information for an article or product to review.” Ars Technica noted that blacklists are “something you risk every time you give a game a low score” and that the real shocker in this instance was that the threat was made public.

I have never worked with the game industry, so it was (naievely, perhaps) shocking to learn that everyone on both sides of the equation—game publicists and game reviewers—take the situation for granted. It should be viewed as an abuse of power and a violation of ethical standard, particularly in the new normal of the socially hyperconnected world.

(Article 3 of the IABC Code of Ethics reads, “Professional communicators understand and support the principles of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas and act accordingly.” The Fairness clause of PRSA’s Code of Ethics states “We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the general public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.” (The emphasis is mine.)

It was a good six or seven years ago when Bob Lutz, then vice chairman of General Motors, argued that negative comments were necessary to lend credibility to his FastLane blog. Comment sections that contained nothing but praise and agreement would clearly demonstrate that FastdLane was a censored, whitewashed blog, resulting in fewer readers and fewer opportunities to communicate and influence.

Blacklisting anyone who speaks his mind about a game doesn’t seem much different to me. It’s a form of censorship, a means of denying freedom of speech to people who rely on early releases to publish their reviews concurrent with the game’s launch. Communicators should wrinkle their noses at the stench that arises from the very idea of such behavior.

By all accounts, Redner’s tweets were heartfelt. He had invested so much emotion in the launch of the game that he was offended by the venom several critics injected into their reviews. But also by all accounts, the game deserved the attacks it received. On a recent episode of our podcast, For Immediate Release, my co-host, (Neville Hobson, who pre-ordered the game and got it the day it was released, unleashed a string of insults on episode 604 (posted yesterday).

Among practitioners of public relations, it’s an age-old axiom that good communication won’t make a bad product good. Bad reviews for a bad product are part of the territory.

What’s more, armies of consultants (ranging from pre-social media counselors Don Pepper and Martha Rogers to new-media advisors Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba) have argued that complaints and bad reviews are a company’s best source of information for product improvement.

But none of this seems to matter as so many in the business simply acknowledge blacklisting as just a fact of life. I suspect for some, it’s a misguided strategy to tip the scales toward positive reviews, while for others it’s simple vindictiveness.

Whatever it is, it’s a practice that’s unethical and unprofessional, and should stop. If doing the right thing isn’t enough of a motivation, the recent blogger exposure of bad behavior by Burson Marstellar counselors trying to launch a whisper campaign against Google (on behalf of its client Facebook) should give game publicists pause.

If blacklisting once took place behind the curtain, the Duke Nukem incident has parted the curtain. It would take only another couple similar revelations before hard-core gamers react in disgust and Anonymous-like organizations seek retribution against the companies whose games are at the center of such controversies.

And, ultimately, the practice just reinforces the worst perceptions the general public has of the public relations profession: sleazy spinmeisters who engage in any ethically-challenged behavior that produces the result they want.

Dalton TrumboIf the game is bad, the game developers should take their medicine and move on. Blacklisting is wrong, period. It conjures memories of names like Dalton Trumbo (right), Lillian Helman and Paul Robeson, Hollywood insiders blacklisted in the 1950s for suspected affiliation with the Communist party. But mostly, it’s an opaque, inauthentic behavior in an increasingly transparent world. While game publicists may have gotten away with it up to this point, the behavior will undoubtedly be subject to increased exposure, the consequences of which will be farther reaching than a bad review.



  • 1.So now that I have the full context of your viewpoint, I still think that it is OK to not share news with someone if they won’t portray it in a positive light. Is that blacklisting? No, I am just strategically reaching out to targets that I would like to cover my client’s announcement that are most interested. Maybe I’ll reach out to the others with another announcement, no harm done.

    Now that this is “public,” does it scare reviewers to always cover something positively? Yes, if they want to get new news first. There are right ways and wrong ways to give negative reviews and some in the example of Duke Nukem crossed the line and went beyond constructive criticism.

    From a PR perspective, why would I give news to someone who will negatively portray my client’s announcement? I can get fired over that.

    Do I support blacklisting? Of course not, but I can’t allow my client to be the victim of someone’s “free speech” when I can choose not too. That’s part of my responsibility to my client.

    When did the writers become the gatekeepers of news? It’s the PR professionals who supply them with most of it and work with them to develop the story. It is a delicate balance and I hope one PR mishap doesn’t reflect the industry.

    Trace Cohen | June 2011 | NYC

  • 2.We're not in disagreement, Trace. Clearly what happened here -- and what seems to be happening in general -- is that PR counselors send product to people whom they HAVE identified as the right ones to review the product, then blacklist them when they write a negative review.

    Certainly I wouldn't pitch a story to a reporter or blogger I know will slam the story. (At least, not often. I've done it once, intentionally, to very great effect. But that's another story.) But selecting the targets of your pitches is one thing. Threatening those who write honest, negative reviews with blacklisting is another altogether.

    Shel Holtz | June 2011

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