Tuesday, June 17, 2014

This News Is Not For You: A Hasbro Story

I've been covering collectibles for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years, with 12 or so of them spent putting San Diego Comic-Con hours under my belt, so if that doesn't earn me a purple heart in the geek army, I don't know what would. In the past, when I've aired my grievances against companies, I've been called "arrogant" and "entitled" or even "elitist" so I'd like to put that out there from the get go. If I come off this way, just understand it comes from frustration. Frustration that 15 years of writing on the internet earns me nothing in the eyes of most industry executives and more often than not, puts me in the same cramped, hot room with 100 other individuals at events like Toy Fair where a fair deal of these folks pull out their camera phone to record the day. Do I think I am better than them? I do not, but I am certainly working harder than them, as are many other people in the room who showed up ready to take more than 20 pictures and spend the rest of their time trying to squeeze free samples from anyone who will listen. Sites like Cool Toy Review, Action Figure Insider and ToyNewsInternational show up ready to sweat, with very little time to take the 900 pictures their readers expect, patiently waiting for they guy with the massive iPad to finish his painfully slow sweep across the entire display. Most of us do this for little or nothing, and that is our choice, but we cross our fingers every day that the companies will make this job as easy as they possibly can. Often, they do not.

Toy Fair season, for us, starts about 2 months early. Since our crew is global, being the veterans of Action-figure.com, we take every opportunity to give a larger view of these events and cram in a staggering amount of news, so much so that by the time New York arrives, I am spent. Sadly, I remain the only individual able to get all the news online. CRY FOR ME!! So we go to Germany and London and sometimes back to London and we are handed press releases and get emails and through it all, our policy remains the same: "If the news is made public, we run it." No sneakiness about it at all. Our secret pass-phrase at Nuremberg Toy Fair was "Hey, may we have a sales sheet?"...and then we had a sale sheet. Cue smoke bomb. Still we are accused of all manor of intellectual property theft, hacking into secret servers and generally breaking embargoes on events we've never been to. To say the least, it is tiring. Laughably, it is easier to run news on films than it is to cover the toy industry.

Hasbro, specifically, has only become a problem in the last couple of years. The excellent folks at Hunter and Litzky PR can be held blameless for any shenanigans and, in fact, are probably responsible for the collector-friendly events and sample boxes press receive year round. Still, Hasbro proper maintains a strangle hold on their news, letting only a trickle out to PR and then off to us, leaving them beaten most days by ebay auctions and retailer pre-orders. Because of this, Idle Hands often does NOT wind up covering Hasbro, as by the time we can get decent images and info together, it is old news to the small percentage of our readers who are die hard action figure freaks. They go where the action is and..well..we aren't very action-y most days! At Toy Fair time, though, we are all about the action, but Hasbro makes it clear they don't appreciate our coverage. Their mandate has been succinct, and to para-phrase: "You are to run only what Hasbro and Hasbro assigned PR hands you." My counter argument has always been "If all websites did that, no one would be talking about Transformers, Star Wars or My Little Pony more than once every 6 months."

Hasbro does not take our input kindly, or in the spirit it is intended. Our offenses (in their eyes), to date, include the following...

- Illegal use of unreleased Spider-Man images (which were found on Hasbro.com)
- Illegal use of advance sales images for Iron Man 2 (which were found on Amazon.com)
- Illegal use of advance product lineups information for Guardians of the Galaxy (also found on Hasbro.com)
- Illegal use of advance product imagery (from a Hasbro catalog handed to us at Toy Fair)
- Illegal use of advance product listing information (from a Hasbro sales sheet handed to us at Toy Fair)
- Illegal use of advance product listing information (from a Hasbro press release handed to us at Toy Fair)

There is probably more but you get the idea. Last year pleasant conversation ended in several DCMA citations against our website, which effectively take down the articles without any conversation with me and leave links that lead to nothing, assuring our rankings on Google go in the crapper. Try as I might to convince Hasbro that everything they were disputing was already online, my words fell on deaf ears. Hasbro got what they wanted and ignored me. This year's Toy Fair coverage did not bring with it great advance news, but Hasbro had issue with it all the same.

From Dan Benkwitt, Senior Manager, Brand PR and Communications: "Happy New Year and I hope all is well. Just saw your post coming out of UK Toy Fair. Thanks as always for the coverage. Wanted to give you a heads up that while most of the info you have included was publicly released via official press channels from our team in the UK, you have some items in the post that did not come from an official press channel and as such some of the info is early or inaccurate. As we consider you a friend of these brands and as a regular visitor to our special, invite only events, could we ask you to edit the unofficial/inaccurate info? If so, I’d be happy to let you know which info is unofficial and/or inaccurate – we appreciate it."

I answered enthusiastically. " Hey Dan! Absolutely. I don't hesitate to tell you the bulk of it is from an official press release my reporter was handed which I typed out last night and the rest was on a sales sheet a retailer friend of ours passed along, so we thought all the information was solid and made public. Happy to correct the incorrect bits. Just let me know what needs tweaking."

The reply was far from helpful in "fixing" incorrect information...and more about "deleting".
"Thank you – we appreciate if you can remove the information about Play-Doh DohVinci, Guardians of the Galaxy and Angry Birds. As always, only official press information can be guaranteed as final and accurate news for your readers and we do not recommend featuring information from sales. May I ask who your retailer friend is so we can make them aware?"

As you can imagine, I was a little put off, but I responded with a line by line counter, asking what parts of our coverage were "incorrect" and how we might "correct them" short of deletion. All coverage was handed to us and so, made public, at a major event...so this was certainly not a mistake or covert information grab. The Play-Doh item was on a press release and, honestly, so insignificant we didn't even run the picture we had..only info. We asked if the press release info was incorrect. The Guardians of the Galaxy list was the tiniest fraction of the items Hasbro themselves listed on their website and allowed countless other websites to run. We asked if they wanted the small listing replaced with the giant listing they seemingly cleared. Perhaps this was a bit snarky, but the situation called for it. I DID ask if the small information was incorrect, volunteering to replace it with the larger, correct list. Finally, the Angry Birds information was of the Transformers variety. The year previous, we found the first images of Angry Birds Star Wars, and while our PR friends at Hasbro comicly chided us for spilling the beans, no one gave us more grief than that. On this occasion, we had known about Angry Birds Transformers for months and kept zipped lips. Only when we saw the listings in writing, did we give the project a mention, expecting pre-orders would follow soon after. This all took place around January 28th, 2014.

Jump forward to February 6th. We were confident our points were taken well and were happy it seemed Hasbro were listening to reason. On the other hand... we had not gotten our invite to the Hasbro Press Day, and that caused some dismay. Any emails to Hunter PR were ignored and we finally got a reply directly from Dan.

"Hi Paul, I wanted to reach out to let you know that due to the frequent and high volume of occurrences of unofficial images and information on your blog, we are no longer able to extend invites to Hasbro events including the annual New York Toy Fair event. We will still be able to keep you on our press distribution lists so you will continue to receive official images and information from our agencies. Thank you for understanding our position."

I didn't understand, naturally. What Hasbro was saying, essentially, was "There will be no conversation about this. We said delete things and you did not. All *special* privileges are now revoked, but please feel free to cover Hasbro at your own expense." Any contact I had at Hasbro was now unreachable...with even long time friends deleting me on Facebook and not responding to any direct messages. THEY DELETED ME FROM FACEBOOK!! I felt that was the equivalent of someone spitting gum at you...childish, extreme and unnecessary. I attempted to reach two more executives to tell them what had happened but did not receive any reply. We were cut off...more or less, for covering Hasbro in a way they didn't agree with. The attitude was "Do what we say, not what we do"..which is something a child might hear.

So..where does that leave us? Here. Still banned. Still getting no emails back from anyone at Hasbro or Hunter PR and very likely loosing side work as Hasbro expresses their distaste for me personally to those who are forced to listen. I regret there is no happy ending here, and in the scheme of things, it is truly a petty moment that means little...but we are talking about toys...aren't we? Toys don't mean much. They are pieces of plastic, taking on dust with every moment they remain motionless on your shelf....but I find a great deal of happiness in collecting them. It is a shame I can't find an equal degree of joy in telling YOU about them.

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