Last week, a group of UK game journalists spent some time with Watch Dogs. It was a preview event, which basically means the publisher opens up a room somewhere, plugs in a bunch of game playing devices, and lets journalists play a bit of the game – probably with PR representatives hovering and pointing out the best bits. By all accounts, not an atypical experience for games press.

While they were there, Ubisoft representatives decided that it would be entirely appropriate to hand out Nexus 7s to press.

Yes, Nexus 7 tablets. Portable computing devices with touch interfaces. They each go for around $200 a pop at retail.

Now, apparently everyone there was given one. I don’t know the exact details of how these items were distributed, but I’m inferring from some tweets I read that it was included in a bag with other objects, rather than handed over directly. Either way, it’s a grossly inappropriate act.

Nobody knows for sure who was there, or how many were given the tablets. Nobody knows what’s happening with a lot of them, although some attendees either handed the tablet back directly, or intend to either donate it to charity or sell it and donate the proceeds of the sale to charity. But nobody really knows who exactly is keeping the tablets for sure.

And that’s a big problem.

While no self-respecting member of the press would actually consciously change their impressions of a product due to gifts received, the second we take something we immediately bring our impartiality into question. Taking an item of value implies that something will be given in exchange – in the case of press, the most obvious return would be positive coverage. The product may be the best thing in the entire world and may deserve to be praised to high heaven, but the second one positive word appears after a gift has been received, there is a question.

Is this coverage positive because it was bought?

Like I said, no self-respecting member of the press would accept gifts in exchange for positive coverage – not if they wanted to stay in the industry for more than a week or two. After all, bad eggs tend to get sorted out pretty quickly. But the appearance of impropriety is more important than any actual wrongdoing, and the giving and receiving of gifts is a very quick way of making everyone look untrustworthy.

But more than the old question of journalistic impartiality and gifts, the Nexus incident poses a more obvious issue – what the hell were Ubisoft PR thinking?

No, really, what were they thinking?

What is the purpose of preview events? To get coverage for your product. How does coverage work? Well, a bunch of trustworthy people get their hands on it, then give their honest opinion to an audience that believes them.

Can you spot the issue here yet? I’ll give you a hint:

1. Journalists being given (relatively) expensive gifts by PR representatives calls their impartiality into question.

2. Preview event coverage relies on trust between press and their audience.

Anything that puts the press previewer’s trustworthiness into question is a disadvantage for the PR team. Giving gifts of significant value immediately undermines everything the PR team is aiming to do with the preview event.

Not only is this bad ethical policy, it’s also a completely dumb waste of money.

I don’t know how big the preview event was, or the exact details of how it was hosted, but I assume it would have been at least of average size. Putting together a preview event costs money. You have to prepare a room for press, with TVs, consoles, headphones, places to sit, some light refreshment – that’s assuming you don’t have to hire a venue. There’s posters, cardboard cutouts, branding. You have to pay staff to be there. You may have to pay travel or accommodation expenses for some journalists (which is an ethical quandary in and of itself). You may have to pay for high level development staff to be there. Add to that the usual PR guff of free trinkets like stickers and t-shirts and fancy invites and reams and reams of NDAs and you’ve got yourself a tidy sum. And those are just the costs off the top of my head as an observer – I’m sure a friendly PR manager could fully detail the expenses list if it wasn’t 2am on a long weekend Sunday, and they felt like disclosing costs.

So why would you want to buy, say, 20-30 Nexus 7s at $200 each?

And, more importantly, why would you spend that money on something that undermines the entire purpose of the event?

Now you don’t just have the cost of the tablets, you also have the overhead of the wasted preview event, since those audience members who read the coverage after hearing about the gifts will immediately question what’s being said. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

I have to say that many large names have come out against the practice, condemning the actions of the PR team, and supporting those declaring the gift and giving it away or to charity. And I’m with them.

For their part, Ubisoft UK tweeted that what happened was “not in line with [Ubisoft UK’s] PR policies”. Which, um, is strange? But hopefully this means no more free gifts for press in the future.

The bottom line is that this Nexus affair makes everyone look bad. The press look too cosy with PR, the PR look like they’re being shady, and anything that’s said about the product – good or bad – is muddied. And that isn’t how things should be – and is far from the reality of impartial press (not commenters, not advertisers, not entertainers, but actual press) that I know.

Lachlan Williams
Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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