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Xbox 180: PR would be boring if it wasn’t for Microsoft style U-turns

Posted by Joe McNamara on 20th June 2013

Earlier this month I gleefully tore Microsoft’s launch of the Xbox One to shreds like the intolerable Playstation cheerleader I am. But as one chapter in this story ends another one is written; with Microsoft announcing that it has reversed its decision to impose restrictions on pre-owned games on the console to be launched later this year.

Having pulled off one of the most merciless product U-turns since, I don’t know, the reinstatement of the Windows start button three weeks ago, Microsoft is asking for another blast.

But lots of tech journalists have already done that, so I’m going to talk about PR for once. Are inconsistent messages such as these poisonous for the public’s perception of a brand? Or is holding your hands up and admitting you got it wrong actually the more virtuous action?

In the blue corner: The customer is always right

It’s one of the cornerstone principles of any consumer product. The positively rapturous reception of the Sony’s next console, the PS4, made a bit of a laughing stock of Microsoft’s more ambitious and general entertainment focused alternative.

Rightly or wrongly, the biggest bee in everybody’s bonnet was that the PS4 took the more lenient approach to digital rights management (DRM), allowing consumers to trade-in and play pre-owned games. Whereas reselling Xbox One games would be greatly restricted and users would require an internet connection for every game they played to authenticate their content.

Microsoft was accused of turning its back on the core gaming audience while its biggest competitor was applauded. So, rather than be stubborn and be the brand that doesn’t listen to its customers, Microsoft has reversed its policy and issued a lovely statement telling its customers that they have listened to them and acquiesce to their demands.

That’s not a bad bit of PR is it? Identify the problem, address the problem, solve the problem, tell everyone you’ve solved the problem, let them tell everyone else that you’ve solved the problem.

In the red corner: Who’s in charge here?

Well there is a problem. PRs don’t tell their clients to be consistent in their brand messaging because they’re lazy and it makes things easier for them. Sometimes your customers aren’t right (at first anyway). More to the point, people on the internet aren’t always right. I’m not an Xbox customer and never will be – what I think is irrelevant to them.

Gizmodo did some star-gazing as to what Xbox’s new model would have actually meant for gamers and the point is, Microsoft were about to try something different. It could have been a really cool way of doing it, but we never gave it a chance and now neither have Microsoft.

To me, the U-turn smacks of a company that doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. Do I want to buy from a company that doesn’t believe in its own innovation enough to brush aside a few scathing reviews from idiots like me who haven’t even tried their revolutionary idea out? Did Apple allow the non-believers to dictate their product pipeline?

Since the outset, it’s felt more like the Xbox One is taking things from the gamer rather than giving them more; ‘they took away our DRM support’ not ‘they showed us a new way of doing things’. The U-turn has been presented as a concession rather than a value-add.

PR can be a rollercoaster for massive brands that provoke opinion, and with social media empowering the masses with a voice those brands have to learn to deal with criticism without abandoning new ideas that aren’t received well straight away. If Facebook had aborted its timeline update every time people moaned about it we’d still have the same layout we had in 2009.

I’m not one for flogging a dead horse, but with the right messaging, a consistent line and presenting the changes as an innovative step forward rather than brushing them under the carpet and hoping people wouldn’t notice, Microsoft could have turned this around. The fact they’ve changed sides at the first sign of an argument just tells me they didn’t believe in the idea enough in the first place.

Joe McNamara