Pokémon Go: crisis communications in the face of outstanding success?

21 Jul 2016 7:18 am by Leela Bozonelis

Pokémon Go – the augmented reality (AR) mobile game where players roam the real world in search of virtual creatures has taken the world by storm.  The latest offering from the Pokémon franchise has captured the imagination of players of all ages who will seemingly go to great lengths to add the rarest characters to their collection.  The media is already reporting stories of car crashes and injuries caused by playing the game, but what impact have these events had on the brand?    

A Guatemalan teenager is believed to have become the first person to be killed while playing Pokémon Go, the recently released mobile game app has already generated $35 million in revenue from 30 million worldwide downloads, according to intelligence firm Sensor Tower.  The 18-year old was shot while playing the game on the streets of Guatemala and while the incident is the first reported game-related fatality, there have been a number of negative news stories linked to the new Pokémon phenomenon.

The first augmented reality success story

Shares in Nintendo – the company that owns Pokémon Go with Google spin-off developer Niantic – have doubled in value since the launch of the game July 6, and Apple is set to generate $3 billion in revenue from in-app purchases.  The company's share price overtook rival Japanese technology company Sony, despite the fact that the game is yet to be released in Japan.

The Japanese government has released a one page flier warning players about the dangers of playing Pokémon Go, including heatstroke and criminal scams, as well as offering practical advice to keep citizens safe while playing.  The warning was issued in the face of a flurry of negative news stories reporting the dangers of playing the game.

Analysing Pokémon Go's media profile

Pokémon Go has already seen phenomenal success in the countries where the game has been released, and this is a trend set to continue as the game is launched in Nintendo's home country Japan.  The craze has seen a significant surge in news coverage.  There have been more than 175,000 mentions of the game in online news, blogs, print and broadcast media since it launched 6 July.

Not all of the articles covering Pokémon Go have been positive. Most recently, a teenager was shot and killed when he broke into a house playing the game. In the US, two players were shot by a man believing them to be burglars, while another man was stabbed in a group of 30 players in North Carolina.  There have also been numerous road traffic-related incidents caused by pedestrians playing the game and in some instances, even drivers.

Research using LexisNexis Newsdesk shows a high occurrence of the terms such as police forces, law enforcement, shootings, investigations, robbery in the media profile of Pokémon Go.

Negative Themes in Pokemon GO articles

The chart shows the number of mentions of the negative terms in the articles about Pokémon Go.  For many companies, this level of negativity would prompt immediate crisis management preparation.

Responding to criticism

Pre-crisis preparation is critical to the success of any reactive PR activity associated with negative news.  In a recent LexisNexis webinar, 'Preparing for the Storm: Tracking Negative Media Coverage Before It Sinks Your Brand', Alan Abitbol, Assistant Professor of Public Relations at the University of Dayton, explained: "Research shows that how an organisation prepares for and tackles a crisis actually affects reputation."

In contrast to established crisis communications practice, the companies behind the game have not issued official statements addressing the negative news stories or the perceived dangers facing players, and criticism of the game has extended beyond reports in the news.  Shortly before the app launched in the UK on July 14, Peter Wanless, CEO of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) wrote to the game's owners urging them to make the app safe before launch citing their responsibility "as creators of a game with substantive reach".

The NSPCC is worried unsuspecting children could be targeted through the app's geolocation feature.  Choosing to remain silent, the owners launched the app without addressing these concerns.  The NSPCC has since published a guide for parents on its website offering tips and advice for keeping children safe while playing the game.

Follow the money

Properly implemented crisis communication activities can increase the likelihood of a brand recovering to pre-crisis sales revenues despite a negative media profile.  In the case of Pokémon Go, both of the companies behind the game have experienced significant financial windfalls despite having not yet activated its in-game advertising.

The craze for Pokémon Go could be over as soon as it started, and neither the creators nor the brands cashing in on the trend seem to give much weight to the negativity.  Service King – a chain of auto repair centres in the US – has embraced the more negative aspects of the craze by launching a series of billboard advertisements stating "let's not meet by accident" with the hashtag #DontCatchAndDrive.  Choosing to stay silent – at least at this stage – in the wake of phenomenal success, may prove to be the most effective option.

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