It took mere minutes from THQ Nordic’s announcement of an AMA (“Ask me anything”) session on notorious image board 8chan for things to go bad. The game industry immediately took notice, hoping that the Vienna-based company’s official Twitter had been hacked.
No such luck.
PR and marketing manager Philipp Brock had agreed to hold a question-and-answer session on the board that is known for child pornography, a haven for white supremacy, and a bastion of GamerGate activity. After a mere two hours, THQ Nordic reversed course.
Or, rather, Brock did. In a statement posted to Twitter on the THQ Nordic account and shared with the media directly, Brock said he takes full responsibility for the decision. He says he made the call “without doing my proper due diligence to understand the history and the controversy of the site.”
The damage was done, though. And the apology did little to address the root problem. Brock did not engage the 8chan community alone. He was joined by a subordinate PR manager and business and product development director Reinhard Pollice (an architect of some of THQ Nordic’s many acquisitions).
All of this leaves us to examine just what went wrong here, how THQ Nordic could have bettered itself after the fact, and what this might mean for the company’s future.
A failure of process
In a Twitter post, THQ Nordic’s account stated that “the opportunity was here and we took it, we got apporached [sic] in a very friendly and polite manner and were assured, said person (shoutout to Mark) will take care of the nasty stuff. so, here we are.”
In his apology, Brock says he failed to do his due diligence, essentially claiming that he said yes to the AMA without knowing a thing about 8chan. And yet, THQ Nordic knew to get assurances that “the nasty stuff” would be taken care of.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Brock has been with THQ Nordic since 2011 and in his current role since 2015. He’s not new to how PR works and what kind of preparation should go into striking a partnership.
He claims that he did no research. If true, this is a process problem. THQ Nordic has at least two PR firms on speed dial and does not appear to have contacted either of them for a sanity check. Either would have likely urged the publisher to reconsider.
“PR 101: Do not engage in something unless you fully understand the implications of it,” said veteran PR professional Will Powers on Twitter. “Just putting this out there in case someone can use a reminder today.”
Given Pollice’s participation in the AMA, Brock must have run this idea past Pollice. Pollice’s job is to help the business grow, and engaging in anything controversial tends to alienate part of the audience. Few forums would be considered more extreme than 8chan, which at one time had its domain seized due to reports of child pornography.
“This is a keen example of a systematic breakdown in processes from a company that has grown from regional to global without adjusting their organizational structure to compensate with the necessary level of understanding,” Powers says. “A local PR representative engaged in activities on a global scale without understanding the medium or ramifications of the platform on which he was facilitating his engagement.”
And if this wasn’t a breakdown of process, it was a failure of judgment.
It’s possible that neither of them realized that engaging the 8chan community would “fire” another segment of THQ Nordic’s audience. Courting one group can drive another away due to a clash of core beliefs. In this case, associating with content as vile as what 8chan is known for will likely give many others second thoughts about purchasing THQ Nordic games.
A failure to apologize
To be clear, THQ Nordic has not apologized for the AMA. Instead, the company issued a statement to media and on Twitter signed by Brock.
It’s important to note that THQ Nordic GmbH, based in Vienna, Austria, is one publishing arm of THQ Nordic AB, based in Stockholm, Sweden. In effect, this is similar to the relationship between Activision Blizzard and Activision Publishing. This naming convention is confusing, and company leadership says it is addressing the issue. THQ Nordic AB CEO Lars Wingefors said in January that “the parent company will change its name” to address confusion between the two entities.
As of today, the two companies still have the same name, so the actions of the publishing arm reflect on the overall THQ Nordic brand they share. They both need to grapple with the choice to align the companies with 8chan.
When responding to an email inquiry, Wingefors pointed us to Brock’s statement on Twitter. Wingefors did not respond to follow-up questions, which included a request for a statement on behalf of the company and for Wingefors to personally respond to the events. Instead, it seems that THQ Nordic is comfortable letting Brock take the fall alone and, at the same time, left the link to 8chan promoting the AMA live on Twitter for more than 12 hours after the apology. That link exposed any viewer to material that is, at best, not safe for work.
The message this sends doesn’t help repair the brand. Wingefors as an individual and as the chief executive of his company is not taking a stand. He hasn’t condemned the content with which his company is now associated. He hasn’t indicated how this failure happened or how it will be prevented in the future, and the company was slow to move to do something as simple as delete a problematic tweet.
Letting Brock hang by himself isn’t admirable. It doesn’t protect or insulate THQ Nordic. Instead, it lets the actions stand as a dog whistle for the internet’s worst elements. Wingefors may be hoping that silence will sever the bonds his company now has to 8chan’s community. Instead, it tacitly ties them tighter.
Typically, in situations requiring crisis PR efforts, the key is to stop as soon as you realize there is a problem. That’s the opposite of what happened in this case. When asked why he allowed the AMA to continue, Brock told GamesIndustry.biz, “I was fucking overwhelmed with a plethora of different emotions to be honest.”
There’s a mismatch between the action and the apology. Brock isn’t the only person at fault here, despite what THQ Nordic would have us believe. And the company won’t be able to put this incident behind it until it takes ownership of everything that led to this ill-advised conversation.
All is not lost
THQ Nordic has made a number of self-sabotaging decisions, but that doesn’t mean that the company can’t recover. The first step is for Wingefors to take responsibility for actions taken in his company’s name. A full-throated apology would help draw a solid line between what happened and what will happen moving forward.
Otherwise, THQ Nordic has taken steps down a path that will ultimately alienate it from segments of the industry that have otherwise admired the company’s growth. But it’s not too late to turn back.
These events don’t have to be anything other than a learning opportunity.
“In a world that has its fair share of corporate bullshit and perfect high-gloss PR, I guess it never hurt anyone to stick out of that goo a bit, without making it look forced,” Brock says in his LinkedIn profile. He’s now proven himself wrong. In “sticking out of the goo” he stepped in something much worse, and it’s going to take time to get 8chan’s stink off of THQ Nordic’s brand.