Video game company EA recently experienced just how strong the dark side of a PR crisis could be, during the launch of its new Star Wars title.
Its crisis had classic elements of a PR meltdown: customers rallying against a brand, mainstream press attention, brand apologies, backpedaling and the memes that have ensured the situation lives on long after the crisis. All of these have the potential to do sustained and long-term reputational damage, if not managed correctly. In EA’s case, the potential for negative “brand bleed” onto other Star Wars properties was also a consideration.
The Crisis Force Awakens
To summarize the controversy, EA introduced a new game called Star Wars Battlefront II, which featured micro-transactions — in-game purchases designed to enhance the playing experience. In some cases, these purchases could give players an instant competitive advantage when playing against others. Players could get the same competitive advantages, without paying, only if they dedicated a significant amount of time to grinding through the game.
Fans revolted, especially on Reddit, and in response EA’s community team tried to quell the anger with a statement that has become the most disliked comment in the social platform’s history. At the peak of the ordeal, another negative viral moment came as a result of an EA community member’s Twitter response that expressed resentment for the game’s criticism, likening the critics to “armchair developers.”
It wasn’t until the eve of the game’s wide release that EA announced the temporary removal of the micro-transaction feature.
From a PR standpoint, there were clear mistakes in the brand’s action and response plan for this crisis. One was trying to remedy an already out-of-control situation with a corporate and templated response. The other was delaying the implementation and communication of a solution until the very last second.
A New PR Hope
Navigating a crisis seems difficult, but there are some simple rules to live by, to ensure your brand doesn’t cross over to the dark side:
Brands need to establish a long-term “ramp” around issues that could derail a launch. For Battlefront II, the first time consumers realized the implications for the game’s paid micro-transactions was a week before the game’s launch, during the open beta test. The micro-transaction feature was announced months before launch, but without indicating the potential for a pay-to-win scenario. In the months preceding launch, the best approach would have been transparency about the feature, explaining the rationale and learning from feedback then.
It’s easy for brands to understand when they’re in the middle of a crisis. A more important task is the ability to anticipate when a crisis is about to hit critical mass. Negative press articles, tweets, Reddit posts and comments are all easily measurable with current marketing technology. In advance of a crisis, brands should define their own metric thresholds. In simple terms, brands should ask: What’s the number of negative reactions in a specific timeframe that should prompt a public response?
Brands should decouple corporate spin from their ground team. Creating a single, visible public advocate, one that speaks directly to consumers in a time of crisis, is an important task that takes time. This is someone who should create a long-term dialogue with consumers in the lead-up to a product launch, addressing their concerns in an authentic voice that speaks “consumer” and avoids corporate buzzwords. Brands need to funnel communications through this leader and reinforce their role within their organization. Well-intentioned tweets from any member of your brand can easily be taken out of context and mistaken for an official company stance.
Even when the dust has settled after a crisis, a brand’s job isn’t done. If not managed properly, the negative consumer reaction has the potential for damage to future product launches. Brands should embrace their learnings from past crises, acknowledge them publicly via their public advocate, and assure consumers they are putting their feedback into action.