Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Gamespot's Official Statement And Why It Doesn't Convince Anybody

Gamespot made an official statementabout the firing of Jeff Gerstmann yesterday. Here's an excerpt:
Due to legal constraints and the company policy of GameSpot parent CNET Networks, details of Gerstmann's departure cannot be disclosed publicly. However, contrary to widespread and unproven reports, his exit was not a result of pressure from an advertiser.

"Neither CNET Networks nor GameSpot has ever allowed its advertising business to affect its editorial content," said Greg Brannan, CNET Networks Entertainment's vice president of programming. "The accusations in the media that it has done so are unsubstantiated and untrue. Jeff's departure stemmed from internal reasons unrelated to any buyer of advertising on GameSpot."

So I read this and here's my gut reaction: Gamespot is full of shit.

Why I think that, though, is what I want to talk about, because it was an instant reaction, and what I thought about last night was why I had that reaction. I think the answer to that question speaks to all kinds of things about who and why we trust people.

Every allegation of misconduct by Eidos had one important element in common: they were specific and personal. Penny Arcade pulled no punches--their comic was as explicit as it could possibly be, as was Tycho's accompanying news post.

Penny Arcade is a very personal comic strip, as far as I'm concerned, as are the news posts. I've been reading those strips and posts three times a week for as long as I can remember. Gabe, in particular, has written posts about his phobias that are incredibly personal.

So, even though I've never met them in person, I feel like I know those guys, because they've shared their lives with us for years. And they've never gone big-time on us, no matter how incredibly successful they've been.

For all those reasons, I trust them.

Next, there was the post over at Valleywag from someone who claimed to work for Gamespot. Based on the detailed nature of the post, it certainly appears that the poster not only worked for Gamespot, but was on the editorial team itself.

Again, this post read as something strongly felt. Even though the poster didn't reveal any personal details, it still felt deeply personal, if that makes any sense.

There were more details from other sources. Specific dollar amounts in terms of advertising campaigns, more people confirming basic details. None of these allegations seemed wild or crazy in the least--they were all intelligently written. Yes, the Internet Gas Can went wild in some forums, but these were people responding to the allegations, not the people making them.

On Friday, a Gamespot spokesman issued a non-denial denial in which she didn't even address the questions posed to her. Her answers spoke to questions that hadn't even been asked.

Oh, and the tone or her responses? Deeply impersonal.

On Monday, four days after the Penny Arcade strip appeared, Gamespot responded with the excerpt I quoted at the beginning of the post. Let's look at a key paragraph again:
Due to legal constraints and the company policy of GameSpot parent CNET Networks, details of Gerstmann's departure cannot be disclosed publicly. However, contrary to widespread and unproven reports, his exit was not a result of pressure from an advertiser.

Seriously, did an android write that?

What I realized is that the reason I don't believe Gamespot is that they responded to some deeply personal, very specific allegations with a boatload of impersonal corporate generi-speak. In fact, I find it impossible to believe that they're telling the truth, and it's largely because of their robotic response, no matter its possible credibility.

So what could they have done differently?

Well, to start with, they should have responded on Friday. Waiting four days to release that craptastic statement isn't going to work in the era of the twenty-four hour news (and forum) cycle.

Two, they should have used the information that had been publicly disclosed to their advantage. Remember what the poster at Valleywag said:
We're very clear in our review policies that all reviews are vetted by the entire team before they go live - everything that goes up is the product of an entire team's output...If there was a problem with his reviews, then it would've been a problem with the entire team.

If Gamespot wanted to make an intelligent attempt to defuse this, they would have said "Exactly. All reviews are vetted by the entire team, so of course it wasn't his review that caused his termination." That turns inside information around to their favor.

Three, they needed to find some way to be more personal. Maybe corporate-speak worked "back then," but we don't live there anymore. Take a look at this:
"Though he will be missed by his colleagues, Jeff's leaving does not affect GameSpot's core mission of delivering the most timely news, video content, in-depth previews, and unbiased reviews in games journalism," said Ryan MacDonald, executive producer of GameSpot Live.

Core mission? Are you TRYING to make me puke, or was that just collateral damage?

Press releases like this just don't work anymore. Massaging a statement twenty times until it reads like an advertisement isn't going to convince anyone.

It's entirely possible that Gamespot is telling the truth, but corporate monolith language is guaranteed to make us believe that they aren't. It's no longer possible to respond to the personal with the impersonal.

Not if you want any of us to believe you, anyway.

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