Having been in media and PR for more than 30 years, Stefano Petrullo knows a thing or two about how to help a game succeed. Richie Shoemaker pulls up a chair and takes notes.
Stefano Petrullo probably doesn’t need much of an introduction, but the founder and director of Renaissance PR is going to get one anyway: Starting out in the games industry as a young journalist in his native Italy in 1991, he worked on a succession of magazines – among them Zzap! and PC Zone – before starting his first PR agency in the early 2000’s. Realising that the gaming infrastructure was better developed elsewhere, he used his status as a EU citizen to move to a welcoming UK in 2006, where he secured a comms role at Koch Media (now Plaion). From there he joined the Ubisoft PR team, working on titles such as Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed and The Crew. Then in 2015 he set up Renaissance, which will be celebrating eight years as one of the UK’s more prominent game PR agencies in April.
Synonymous with Renaissance he may be, but it’s Petrullo we’re interested in today, who reached out to us some months ago to pitch an idea that might provide some insight into the secrets of PR, not in a preachy or textbook fashion, but in a way that reflected his unique experience of working in the industry since the age of 16.
It’s an industry where much has changed, of course, although if the pictures accompanying this feature are any indication, it’s perhaps the case that things haven’t changed enough. That’s not really his office, surely? “No!” Petrullo howls into his laptop camera, from a distinctly more modern location that clearly has electricity. “We did a Peaky Blinders VR event in London, at an experiential place in Camden where they have the actual sets and props from the show .”
The photo was taken in Tom Shelby’s office – the character played by Cillian Murphy – who, even to those unfamiliar with Peaky Blinders, doesn’t necessarily come across as someone naturally suited to a career in PR. Then again, Petrullo didn’t know whether he would be either.
“When I moved into PR there were no comms professionals in Italy. I essentially had to grow not knowing the rules of the game.” Then, when he arrived in the UK five years later, he was at an added disadvantage by not having any contacts. “I’d just started from scratch again in a foreign country. I had a great boss at Koch Media and there were great people in UK PR, but I had to build myself up my way, by seeing what worked in PR and what didn’t. I’ve been trying to swim and not sink for 30 years.”
“THE BEST WAY TO CLEAR THE AIR IS TO TALK WITH PEOPLE”
Coming from games journalism, as many PR professionals often do, Petrullo has experienced blacklisting from both sides of the media divide. Consequently, as a strategy for dealing with a publication that may be overly-harsh or persistent in its criticism, it’s not one that he sees any benefit to.
“More than losing coverage, you lose control of the messaging,” he says, recalling an episode when he was at Ubisoft and Videogamer.com seemed to load its coverage of Ubisoft’s games with unnecessary criticism. Rather than put the site on the naughty step, Petrullo took the initiative and took the editor out for lunch. Very quickly the two parties came to an understanding that whatever issues Videogame.com had, it was simply a difference of opinion, which as a former journalist Petrullo was entirely understanding of. He left the meeting with the situation resolved and Videogamer.com later became a close ally.
“When you start seeing negativity, you might start to think that a media outlet hates you, but that is never the case,” muses Petrullo, suggesting that rather than holding back on developer access or code, to open a dialogue and get straight to the heart of the matter. “Then you’ll understand that most opinions are entirely reasonable. It’s all part of building and maintaining trust – which is one of the most important resources in PR.”
But are there any instances where blacklisting is justified? “I can’t think of an example where it’s been an advantage,” says Petrullo, recalling an instance where an outlet had been blacklisted by a publisher and was thus exempt from abiding by any embargo. The game was then released early by mistake and the site was able to purchase a copy and review it before anyone else. “Everyone that was under embargo called the publisher and I swear to god I was so happy that I was not its PR manager.” He adds with a chuckle, “It was a good review, actually.”
“YOU NEED COVERAGE MORE THAN COVERAGE NEEDS YOU”
Petrullo suggests that everyone working in PR should have stuck to their monitor a Post-it Note that simply says ‘I need the coverage’. “It’s sad,” he says, “but the people that create the content don’t need me. But, at the end of the day, if I’m promoting a game, I need them.”
It’s a balance of power between PR and media that has certainly shifted, for while the number of outlets has exploded over the last 20 years – all eager for PR attention of one form or another – the number of games being released on a weekly basis is equally voluminous.
“If you work in communication, I would suggest you be very, very humble. It doesn’t matter what game you’re launching. It could be a AAA or a small indie title, but you need the coverage more than the journalists that write it because they can access hundreds of games that are not yours.”
Petrullo says that he rarely hears of a journalist or content creator that is desperate to cover a particular game. “Of course, everyone wants to cover the latest Call of Duty, the Assassin’s Creeds, Elden Ring, but the rest they can mostly do without and they can cover a game without having access to it anyway.” It means that outside of the five or six most wanted games in any given year, there are opportunities, even if they are hard to grasp. Having the right people on side for the right game is essential. “It’s a big, big thing for me, to maintain relationships with the people that generate content. Just know that they might not necessarily need you.”
“INFORM EARLY. ACKNOWLEDGE, RESPOND AND RESOLVE QUICKLY”
This one might seem obvious, but Petrullo insists there’s more to informing a potential audience than throwing out press releases and trailers and expecting a return. Think about the three or four main touchpoints or beats in your campaign and get the information out early to build up interest.
“Don’t assume people know your game. Give them context. Getting coverage means letting people know about the game a long time in advance, and then being responsive and resolving any issues as quickly as possible – within 24 hours max.” It’s about making a person’s life easier, says Petrullo, so that they can see that you are making an effort. It means that person is more likely to create content, even if it doesn’t influence the nature of it. “That’s a completely different story. Anyone who says they have the power to influence coverage is a liar. If I was able to manage how positive a review would be I would have a Ferrari. I have a Honda Civic. I love my Honda Civic.”
This is all well and good, but what if your contact goes quiet on you. How do you re-establish contact and get coverage moving again? “Don’t get anxious or put off by a lack of a response,” says Petrullo. “I don’t know any journalist that doesn’t get at least 50 to 60 emails a day, perhaps as many as 300. How you step it up will depend on how well you connect with your contact. You might have to wait until you’ve got something new or more relevant to say. I have a creative approach to discuss all the elements of the game. It could be the hero. Could be the setting. Could be the multiplayer. With every game, you can explore seven or eight topics. You take those eight topics, and you start looking at what you can do with them.”
“MANAGE EXPECTATIONS WITH FULL TRANSPARENCY AND METRICS”
“PR success is based on a couple of things,” says Petrullo, “which basically come down to putting media and content creators in the best possible position to do their job.” Essentially, if a journo expresses that their life has been made easier by one of Petrullo’s interventions, that is one measure of getting it right.
“The second parameter of success for me is shooting for the moon and to try to go beyond what other PRs do.” (Not sure how you quantify that one, but sure.) “You don’t need to go crazy, but if you can show a client different approaches, or if you have a PR person that tries different strategies, that is someone that you need to have on your team.”
Third, says Petrullo, is managing the client’s – or your boss’s if you’re in-house – expectations with metrics and full data transparency. It means that if a release goes out when Nintendo has a press conference and there’s no traction, it’s not your fault. “Create the best conditions for people to do their job and define success based on what is within their control. If something is a bad idea or didn’t work, be honest and open and back that up with data.”
“DON’T BE AFRAID TO MAKE MISTAKES”
“In PR we need to recognise and normalise the fact that sometimes people make mistakes, and those mistakes are part of learning.” If people are afraid to make mistakes, it makes them less open and that impacts on honesty and transparency, says Petrullo. “I’m not saying you go to Twitter and say you fuck up something. What I’m saying is, sometimes it’s just an unfortunate situation, sometimes it may be something outside of your control.”
Petrullo brings up the example of leaks, where he says most of the time it’s PR that comes under the spotlight when an unauthorised video appears, understandably perhaps because PR control the faucet that feeds those that report the leaks. But, says Petrullo, “PR people are the most adverse to leaking information because they are precisely the people that know how important it is to control the flow of information.”
Sending a press release early is not a leak. It’s not premeditated. It is, says Petrullo, simply an error. “I don’t know anyone in this industry who hasn’t made mistakes, and the people that have made the most mistakes is just because they have been working in it for longer.”
“KEEP FOCUS – DON”T DO SOMETHING OUT OF HABIT”
Petrullo recognises that events are important to the games industry, not just as a showcase for talent and games, but also for networking and for wellbeing. But, he says, there’s a danger that those in PR (and in all aspects of the gaming industry for that matter), find themselves going to an event just because they’ve been going every year, or because there’s an assumption that that’s what everyone is doing or should be doing.
“Events should be a focus, a tool that helps you reach your goals. If you are just doing what everyone else is doing, going where everyone else is going, what you’re doing just becomes a drop in the ocean. At the same time, there is no point announcing a release date two weeks before PAX and then complaining there is no uptake at PAX. This is all about what we call ‘the moments that matter’ in a campaign, where you align what you want to say in the moment where all media and influencers’ attention is there.” A tricky balance, for sure, but, says Petrullo, if you know what you want to achieve and being at an event helps you cross the line, that alignment becomes measurable.
“NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF FIRST PARTY”
A client doesn’t work with an outside PR for its resource, but for its resourcefulness; expertise, knowledge and contacts. But, says Petrullo, that doesn’t mean that you should discount the resource that a client can bring to the table.
“The support that someone like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo can provide is incredible. You need to be there for them. At the same time, if you go to a first party with your plan, you are going to get them to amplify your message in a much more efficient way. The power of a developer, a publisher and a first party, working together on a PR campaign can change the fate of a game. Use all the contacts you have and work with as many people as possible within first-party or with hardware manufacturers because it can make a massive difference.”
“CHOOSE THE RIGHT AGENCY FOR YOU”
Finally, the big one. Presumably, Petrullo wants you to consider Renaissance first, else he wouldn’t have pitched the idea for this feature in the first place? “Renaissance might not be the right choice for you, or the right choice at the present time.
“When you look for an agency, ask yourself what you need. Is it experts that drive the campaign and are strategic, or do you simply need more people because your in-house team is busy elsewhere. Maybe you need a freelancer for a very specific field or a genre. Speak to each agency, ask what they can bring and see if this is what you need.
“Another thing,” he adds, “never ask what an agency charges before they tell you what they can do. A budget is measurable, but only if you know what you are buying, whether it’s expertise, relations, strategic counselling, crisis management, or whatever else.” … and what does Renaissance offer? Petrullo smiles. “All of the above.”