• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

BIG GO = BIG MO

This weekend's Big Go is another chance for NHRA to get the Big Mo.

The 52d Mac Tools U.S. Nationals (aka, the Big Go) at O'Reilly Raceway Park, near Indianapolis, is NHRA's Daytona 500. I hope the sanction/promoter runs with this opportunity to gain momentum for the series like a nitro car down the quarter-mile instead of allowing it to go up in smoke as if a white haze off Goodyear slicks.

Drag racing too often gets dissed in our media universe -- the way Pluto did last week -- but count me a fan of the straight-line set. I wish anyone with any interest in the automobile the chance to stand on the starting line, between two 7,000 horsepower (!) 330+ mph dragsters as they rocket away, a truly amazing experience. My favorite is Top Fuel -- Brandon Bernstein's Bud King and Hot Rod Fuller's Valvoline machine are shown here (photos courtesy of KennyBernstein.com and NHRA) -- the class made famous by drivers with legendary nicknames: "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney and Funny Car switchovers Kenny "King of Speed" Bernstein and Don "Snake" Prudhomme. Dale Earnhardt's "The Intimidator" aside, no motoring stars have enjoyed such identifiable and enduring titles.

Credit-where-credit-is-due: While I've been frustrated by NHRA's lack of an aggressive national media outreach program, it seems to me there has been an uptick this season. (The Pro Stock class even got some of USA Today's precious space for a story on Jason Line.) Melanie Troxel's outstanding start sure helped. Ditto for Angelle Sampey. J.R. Todd's wins in two of the three Western Swing events were historic. The truth is, diversity was cool in NHRA way before it was embraced by NASCAR.

John Force has been, well, John Force. I've always thought John would have been perfect on the original Survivor, right alongside Rich and Sue and Rudy, so it seemed natural he finally got his own reality series. In fact, the summer's most impressive bit of business to me was the strong publicity and advertising commitment A&E made to the launch of Driving Force. I read and heard about John and daughter Ashley in news outlets that previously acted like drag racing was, well, a drag.

It was exactly the kind of "push" many of us have expected from the series sponsor for the last five years.

Another positive: ESPN2's excellent HD offerings, the best-produced telecasts in all of motorsports. The super-slow-motion replays, which reveal the frame rails twisting and flexing, have increased our understanding of the extreme forces put on the cars and competitors. Technology is great, but like everything else, TV is a people business. Mike Dunn, a 22-time national event winner, is racing's best analyst. His ability to explain why a pass was or wasn't successful as quickly as a nitro car goes from A to B is uncanny. Dunn has made smooth transitions between hosts Marty Reid and Paul Page -- not as easy as you might think -- while Page has been almost spot-on in his new role. He had one of the season's best lines at the Mile-High Nationals. Dunn chuckled as workers struggled to pull Todd's racer out of the sandtap, but Page cautioned him not to laugh, saying: "That's how the pyramids were built!"

The U.S. Nationals should mean yet more national coverage, but let's be honest, there's plenty of work to do. While NHRA's Anthony Vestal is certainly helpful and there are a few accomplished team/sponsor PR people on duty (Susan Arnold, of the Bud King team, last year became the first from drag racing to earn the Jim Chapman Public Relations Award), many others sit on the opposite side of the ladder. The all-too obvious campaign that should have been efforted for Hillary Will apparently never sparked a thought. At Firebird Raceway last February, the rep for double TF winner Fuller's team failed to follow-up on my interview request, then after-the-fact asked in an E-mail why I didn't go searching for him. (!) So, it came as no surprise when I learned the next day this guy had not even bothered to introduce himself to Susan Wade, of National Speed Sport News, 1320tv.com video network as well as other media platforms (and AARWBA Western VP), one of the very few reporters who follow the full series. And, I'm still wondering why Troxel, Sampey, Will, Ashley Force and Erica Enders haven't been "packaged" for The View, Live with Regis and Kelly, and similar shows?

The dirty little secret, however, is too many Big Time Journalists simply think drag racing is beneath them. Oh, the great characters they miss meeting, and the wonderful stories they miss telling!

ESPN2 has scheduled 10 hours of Indy race coverage, including five hours of eliminations on Monday. I suggest you go check out the Big Go.

Congratulations to popular PR rep Drew Brown (at GMR's Charlotte office) and wife Karin on the birth of twins Emery Lisa and Owen Martin. Drew's duties this season have included the Lowe's Fernandez Racing sports car team.


[ more next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

FOLLOW-UPs (and DOWNS)

I received an E-mail from the sports marketing manager of a Big Time sponsor following my Aug. 8 post. Specifically, about the "Truth In Publicity" section, in which I said it is wrong to label as a "500" races that are not 500 MILES. "Somebody in the industry needed to say this," was the communication. I admit, that MADE my day!

Let that message continue to go forth. Last weekend, Road America (one of my five favorite tracks to visit), hosted the American Le Mans Series. The event was headlined as the "Generac 500." 500 WHAT? The race, as usual, ran to a two-hour, 45-minute TV time limit. Last year, that translated to 72 laps, for 291.456 miles or 469.052 kilometers. They did a little better this time, 76 laps, 307.648 miles or 495.111 km.

In that same blog, I called upon PR types to "Park the Clich├ęs." On NHRA's Brainerd weekend, I got not one -- but two! -- releases heralding how a driver qualified "Lucky #13." The sound from media keyboards was loud and clear: Delete. Click.

Thanks to Tami Nealy, Phoenix International Raceway communications manager, for accepting the recommendation made in my Aug. 1 "Why Spin Doctor?" posting. She is reading Ronald Reagan spinner Michael Deaver's book, A Different Drummer. And, as suggested here Aug. 15, Tami has become an American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association affiliate member. PIR hosts the Nextel Cup semifinal Chase race, the Checker Auto Parts 500k, Nov. 12. Prelims include the Casino Arizona 150 Craftsman Truck event Nov. 10 and Arizona.Travel 200 Busch Series contest Nov. 11.

Updating the controversial Champ Car World Series street event in downtown Phoenix (July 18, 20, 23 blogs): PIR commissioned a late-July poll and that survey of "likely City of Phoenix voters" reported "significant opposition to a proposed race featuring Indianapolis 500-style cars." The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (which has worked for the CC promoter's public affairs firm), offered two headlines: 1) Voters oppose the idea by a 56-39 percent margin; 2) After hearing the "best arguments for and against," opposition increased to 66-31 percent.

Memo to PIR's agency: Champ Cars are NOT "Indianapolis 500-style cars." They are not eligible to compete at Indy and the difference extends beyond drivers, chassis and engines. It's also the culture of the Champ Car organization vs. the rival Indy Racing League -- and their fans. A closer look at the poll's "internals" reveals 77 percent have lived in Phoenix for more than 20 years -- and thus well remember the Valley's Formula One fiasco -- and 59 percent are 55 years old or above -- not exactly the event's target demo.

Both the pro-and-con race groups have made more errors than Alex Rodriguez. Another example of that has been the failure of Champ Car's promoters to reach-out to the local motorsports media community. As Jamie Reynolds, host of the Racing Roundup Arizona show (Mondays, 7-9 p.m.) on KXAM radio, said in reporting the poll results: "We'd like to hear from the other side, too." Hello?

Credit to Champ Car's Steve Shunck and Eric Mauk and RuSPORT's Gary Mason for handling the information flow in the immediate aftermath of Cristiano da Matta's accident in a timely and respectful manner. Both the sanction and the team made good use of their websites to regularly update the media and the public on da Matta's condition (see my Aug. 8 post on the Internet-as-an-instant communications medium) and the news conference with CC medical director Dr. Chris Pinderski at the Denver Grand Prix was the correct thing to do.

Elsewhere at the Denver GP, the Rocky Mountain News reported "(spokeswoman) Jana Watt said crowd numbers are not being released this year because they don't compare with numbers from past years (emphasis mine)." That left the impression attendance was WAY down. The newspaper quoted Watt this way: "A lot of people are not familiar with the event or with racing." Now there's a comment that speaks well of the promoter, this five-year-old race, and a series that claims a 97-year heritage!

Depending on how you look at it, the Ray Evernham-Jeremy Mayfield public dustup was the result of not enough communication (with each other) -- or too much communication (with the media). This is clear: EVERYONE (not just Ray and Jeremy) involved emerged diminished. Evernham and Mayfield pay people whose responsibilities include doing whatever it takes to make sure bad situations don't become worse. This was an obvious PR red alert -- and it should and could have been avoided.
The Katie Countdown is underway: The only thing that surprises me is CBS doesn't have a digital clock at the bottom of the screen, so we instantly know the number of days, hours, minutes and seconds until Katie Couric's Sept. 5 debut as the network's news anchor. (Photo courtesy CBSNews.com.) This is the PR Case Study of the Year. Couric hired her own image-makers (non-NASCAR drivers, please note this willingness to invest in your own career) to work in consultation with CBS' publicists, and they have undertaken an extensive and sophisticated campaign, to "reposition" Katie from morning show perkiness to nightly news seriousness. The run-up has included carefully controlled one-on-one interviews, group sessions, photo shoots, focus groups, and a Hillary-esque "listening tour" so Katie could hear from average Americans (no press allowed). Plus, heavy promotion on CBS Sports programming (wink). The New York Times reported the on-air promos would cost an outside advertiser more than $10 million. Those in charge of the orchestration have liberally borrowed tactics from Hollywood and Washington spin doctors. According to the Washington Post, CBS News President Sean McManus sees a media "feeding frenzy" over Couric's new role and is surprised by "this unbelievable thirst for information" about her life. No, it's NOT a surprise. As I have often said: We live in a celebrity-driven, People magazine, photo-op, sound-bite society.

I offer sympathy to the family of my friend Dick Miller, a past president of the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers (I carry membership card No. 1,000), who died last week at age 86. Dick was close to Arie Luyendyk and a lot of us got to know him when he did PR for Provimi Veal's CART team. Mostly, I'll remember Dick as a guy who lived for the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he roamed the pits and garages greeting buddies he saw just that one time each year.

[ more next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A WAKE-UP CALL TO GET INVOLVED

“What’s in it for me?”

That’s the answer I got from a prominent newspaper reporter when I approached him in the California Speedway media center and said he should become a member of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (aarwba.org). Sadly, his attitude perfectly symbolizes the state of our society, circa 2006. (By the way, when I told him about the prize money to be won in the annual journalism contest, he quickly signed-up – and has cashed-in.)

Well, it’s time for certain press and PR people to wake-up to certain issues in the larger media world, and realize getting involved is in their own self-interest.

A few years ago, NASCAR tried to change the wording in the document journalists sign to obtain a season-long “hard card” credential. Numerous news organizations found the new language unacceptable. AARWBA, the National Motorsports Press Association and – surprise! – lawyers soon got involved. Ultimately, the matter was satisfactorily resolved, although suspicions lingered among the hard-liners.

Unfortunately, this lesson wasn’t learned by others. At the start of this year’s ladies’ golf season, the LPGA tried something similar, and found it didn’t make the cut when it came to coverage. Revised credential language was set forth, restricting use of tournament news stories and photographs, and granting the tour rights to use such materials for its own promotional purposes. The dispute resulted in what was effectively a boycott by the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, Golf World and several newspapers and local broadcasters. A resolution was reached once the LPGA discovered its press tent was as vacant as a Key West hotel during a hurricane. If I didn’t know any better, though, I’d swear new LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens had consulted with Bernie Ecclestone before saying: "When media assert their rights, I don't think that means fans aren't going to come out and see or attend the tournaments or the games. I don't think to the average consumer this makes any difference." I assure you Bivens hadn’t asked her event organizers or sponsors before uttering that precious bit of intelligence!

Now, as the all-conquering media giant NFL season is upon us, comes word local TV cameras will no longer be permitted on the sidelines. According to the Arizona Republic, this is the result of a 32-0 vote by franchise owners, so the League can “clamp down on unauthorized uses of its game footage -- meaning, in other words, that the NFL wishes to control video for the sake of exploiting additional revenue streams.” Here in the Valley of the Sun, taxpayers have added to the NFL’s revenue stream courtesy of almost $300 million for a new domed stadium. Home to the Cardinals, historically, one of the worst teams in football.

As of this posting, locally produced video for newscasts would be limited to one "pool" camera -- and that's if the home club approves! Stations will have fewer coverage options if the only available images are from the network telecast. They might not consider it worthwhile to travel to away games, because to TV, no pictures means no story. Stadium advertisers are sure to lose in-market visibility.

Racing has generally been considered a media friendly environment since sponsors want – and need – the exposure to justify multi-million dollar investments. That’s true only to a point. Despite improvements at the major speedways, work facilities too-often badly trail the stick-and-ball stadium standards, especially for photographers and radio reporters. And, it says here, journalists should not expect much help from IRL or Champ Car officials if treated unprofessionally by a participant. Both groups sweat it out daily about losing yet another team; thus, neither is likely to take action against a driver or owner over any media misconduct for fear they might switch series.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of AARWBA, the country’s oldest and largest organization of motorsports media pros, for 35 years. I was eastern vice president when I worked at the Philadelphia Daily News. I had the honor of serving as chairman of the 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2005. My final task, in that role, was to help create the Ombudsman. (I’m a permanent Ombudsman committee member and Valvoline is the founding sponsor.) The program's Mission Statement says it exists: “To provide AARWBA members who have legitimate concerns (regarding issues such as credentials, access, and treatment by drivers, owners, officials, track and sanctioning organization personnel and other media sources), which affect their ability to perform their work assignments, an intermediary through which to address and attempt to resolve those concerns.”

As chairman, I spoke at the All-America Team dinner last December at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Indianapolis, and emphasized how important a strong and effective media organization is for the industry. I explained that, while at the Daily News, I had been a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. “If you have any doubt just how influential the Baseball Writers group is,” I said, “I suggest you ask Pete Rose, who I covered during part of his historic 44-game hitting streak in 1978.”

When I began my career, most legitimate reporters – and public relations representatives – joined AARWBA. By doing so, they showed respect for the sport, and formally became a part of the community. How sad this generation’s “What’s in it for me?” crowd is blind to the obvious answer.


[ more next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]

Thursday, August 10, 2006

CLASSIC BOBBY



Like anyone who was around at that better time in American open-wheel racing history, I have many – MANY! -- Bobby Unser stories. Here’s my favorite:

In late 1981, Sports Illustrated published a major back-of-the-book feature on the controversial three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. At that time, I was CART’s communications director, so I knew the story was coming and had played a small role in facilitating interviews and photos. The article itself provided a bit of controversy, as it included some sharply-written accounts of Unser’s colorful life, but almost everybody who actually knew Bobby thought it captured him pretty well.

As luck would have it, a few days after the piece was published, we were in New York City and one item on our agenda was dinner at the Smith & Wolensky steak house with a few prominent media people. En route to the restaurant, Unser was fuming about the SI article, which wasn’t doing my blood pressure much good since dinner was intended to be a relationship-building and goodwill exercise with journalists. In an attempt to calm him, I said: “Bobby, you are a living legend, and stories like this are written because the public demands to know all they can about you.” As I spoke the words living legend, Unser interrupted me and said, “I know, but . . .”

News came today that Bobby and his brother, Al, were arrested Wednesday by sheriffs in New Mexico. They stand accused of ignoring orders to leave an area blocked-off in a police confrontation with a carjacking suspect. I’m not saying there’s anything funny about being arrested, but this video of Bobby’s interview with a local TV reporter is sure to bring laughs to all who know him. Note Bobby’s comments that he was “in a really good mood;” “never was I anything more than a gentlemen;” and “I’m not dumb, the world thinks I’m smart.” Classic Bobby!

It reminds me there was a time when Indy/Champ Car racing actually featured drivers with personalities that made the public want to buy tickets and watch on TV.


http://www.kobtv.com/viewer.cfm?VID=bobby_unser_speaks_080906.wmv


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

7 FOR '07

August and September usually are interesting months. That’s often when deals get done for the following season, even though we might not learn the news until October or November.

With that in mind, I'll post NOW my list of 7 PR pet peeves, with hopes they will (finally) get done in 2007:

1. Truth In Publicity: Any race billed as a “500” that is not 500 MILES should be labeled as such by the promoter -- and the news media has the same obligation. The average American ticket-buyer who hears or reads about a “500” automatically assumes that means miles – not kilometers or laps or anything else. This has long been a burr under my PR saddle because it’s at best a gimmick, at worst, a borderline attempt to deceive. That’s bad business. The metric system isn’t widely taught in the public schools, otherwise, we’d be talking about Tiger Woods making a 152 centimeter putt or Adam Vinatieri kicking a 45,720 millimeter field goal. Chuck Newcomb and Jim Foster, the original promoters of CART’s Cleveland Grand Prix, understood this and incorporated the kilometers identification into the event’s original logo -- all the way back in 1982. Almost a quarter-century later, it’s time for some others to follow their example.

2. Put the News Back Into ‘News’ Releases: Any publicist with a solid journalism background understands there is no “news” in a release that touts how “excited” a driver is or how he/she is “looking forward to” an upcoming race. Isn’t it natural to assume that’s how the driver feels? In fact, among routine pre-race releases I’ve authored over the years, the one that probably got the most pick-up came before the 1989 Michigan 500. The first graph read this way: “Michael Andretti is NOT looking forward to Sunday’s Michigan 500.” The text went on to explain the issues of escalating speeds on the two-mile oval and efforts to make the cars longer-and-stronger in the front to help protect against leg injuries. In fact, that handout got a second wave of use when Andretti won, despite a spin on pit road and two stop-and-go penalties!

3. Park the Clich├ęs: If anything makes media hit the “delete” button faster than those “excited/looking forward to” releases, it’s the too-clever ones. Trust me, reporters have had it with every pre-Las Vegas release written around the theme a driver "hopes Lady Luck will be riding with him/her,” or how "hot" the racing will be in Phoenix. Not to mention those headlined, (Kasey) “Kahne Is Able.”

4. Promote the Championship: Yes, the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, U.S. Nationals, Sebring 12 Hours and Rolex 24 stand alone in their series. All, however, are part of a season-long championship, which, supposedly, is the ultimate goal. Except in NASCAR, it’s amazing how often there is no attempt to put current news into the context of the title chase – the unifying theme of what otherwise would be a collection of individual events moving circus-like from city-to-city. This isn't a new problem: As CART's communications director, I led a seminar for race organizers and sponsors before the 1983 season titled, "Promoting the Series as a Series." Of course, it doesn't help when sanction officials don't insist producers include an updated points graphic before a race telecast signs-off.

5. Photo-Op: Every media guide should include a good-size photograph of the PR representative(s) for that team, sponsor, track or organization. It sure is nice to know who you are looking for in a crowded press room. No surprise, the NASCAR Nextel Cup guide does this.

6. News at Internet Speed: Some still don’t get it – the Internet is a near-instant form of communication – faster than Bill Elliott at Talladega. I’m left shaking my head when a few sanctioning body web sites don’t have reports, results and updated point standings three hours after the checkered flag. (And, even worse, the server capacity to handle post-race traffic.) Team, track and sponsor sites should post releases at the same time that news is announced to the media.

7. Common Courtesy: Amazing this needs to be written, but sadly, some so-called "PR people" require the reminder. Here goes: Rarely, if ever, is there a valid excuse for not returning phone messages or answering E-mails. Including when the answer is "no." Enough said.

[ more next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]

Thursday, August 03, 2006

COVERING THE COVERAGE

A warning to drivers who behave badly (and their publicists): While veteran motorsports journalists may give you the benefit of the doubt, and usually report what happens accurately because they understand what they are seeing, don’t automatically expect the same from mainstream media.

This was proven – again – last Sunday on ESPN’s long-running and influential The Sports Reporters. The show’s panelists focus on the stick-and-ball games and mention racing about as often as they do rodeo. In his concluding “Parting Shots” commentary, host John Saunders teed-off on Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards for their antics at Pocono. Fair enough (and I agree). But Saunders veered off-base by saying Edwards “spun Stewart dangerously toward his pit crew.”

Wrong. As the video played over Saunders’ words proved, Carl hit Tony in a way he knew would turn Stewart rightaway from crew members. Edwards specifically said in post-race interviews he did that intentionally because he respects those whose job takes them over the wall. Saunders’ bottom line was such retaliation could end up “killing someone.”

Speaking of drivers behaving badly, hello Alex Tagliani and Paul Tracy! Their confrontation at San Jose last Sunday raises two points:

1. It obviously was entertaining for the media and SportsCenter producers, but that does not make it right. Professional athletes should never act unprofessionally. Since Tagliani (photo courtesy Champ Car World Series) telegraphed his intentions with a huffy walk back to the pits -- straight toward Tracy – I can’t help but ask why someone from Team Australia’s management didn’t intercept him to stop this PR embarrassment before it happened? I’ve done just that at least three times in my career. A Sports Illustrated photographer captured one incident, and a grateful sponsor executive put the image into a gold frame, and gave it to me along with a “thank you” note. It hangs on my office wall.

2. Worse still was the journalistic judgment in the NBC production truck, as TV cut away from Tagliani-Tracy just as they started swinging, to show a pit stop. It was asked on Wind Tunnel if the race or the fight should have been the priority. The answer is clear: Cover the news! Two drivers brawling in full public view is a far bigger story than a routine pit stop, which could have been taped, and replayed if necessary. Compounding the error was the questioning – no, the lack of meaningful questioning – of protagonist Tagliani. And, at least twice, Champ Car President Steve Johnson was visible in the background during interviews with backmarkers on the extended post-race time filler. Why wasn’t Johnson, or race director Tony Cotman, put on camera and asked about potential penalties to Tag and Tracy? (Fines, of an undisclosed amount, were announced Wednesday.) Comments from the respective team owners, Derrick Walker and Gerald Forsythe, would have been appropriate. Champ Car changes production companies (four in four years; currently John Mullin's group) the way Paris Hilton does boyfriends. Paris goes for variety and quantity; CC desperately needs stability and quality.

If Danica Patrick’s hissy fit at Michigan, after she apparently ran out of fuel, had been limited to when she got out of the car, I’d buy into the notion that it showed her “competitive fire.” When the antics – foot-stomping, helmet-dropping, stopping-and-sulking -- persisted throughout her walk back to the pits, though, perceptions changed. To my experienced eye, it had all-the-look of playing to the ABC/ESPN TV cameras and print photographers, plus whatever fans remained in the stands. The harshest judgment would be to call it intentional showboating. If that's true, Danica fell into the hands of her critics, because it could be said her very public actions tended to reinforce certain societal stereotypes. I’ll be polite and simply say the scene was not very attractive.

Sports car drivers remain as anonymous as corner workers and last Sunday’s Rolex Sports Car telecast on Speed helps explain why. Daytona Prototype No. 11 was involved in an early race incident and had to pit. Moments later, officials called a penalty, and brought the car back into the pits. Throughout this multi-minute drama, however, the booth and pit announcers repeatedly referred to what was happening with “the 11.” I still don’t know who was driving! In fact, I noticed many examples of car numbers, not driver names, used as the primary or only identification throughout the three-hour presentation. Memo to the producers: This isn’t NASCAR, where even casual fans can say who is in the 8, 20 and 24.

It is with sadness and respect that I note the death of Dick Ralstin. Dick, who saw his first race in 1933 at a half-mile dirt oval in Rochester, Ind. and later became sports editor of the Kokomo Morning Times, served 11 years as PR manager for Goodyear’s racing division. Some seasons he worked as many as 40-50 events. Bob Markus, now retired from the Chicago Tribune, recalled he missed the winner’s interview the first time he covered the Indianapolis 500 in 1968 because he didn’t know his way around the Speedway. Dick came to the rescue and quickly arranged a one-on-one Q&A with Bobby Unser. Ralstin finished his career as field manager for Goodyear’s off-road racing program, until he retired in 1987, and settled in New Mexico.

[ more Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

WHY SPIN DOCTOR?


Since we live at a time when there are people with motorsports public relations titles who don’t know it’s 101 to return phone calls, answer E-mails or establish solid working relationships with key journalists, I turned to politics to advance my own professional education.

It proved to be a good decision. I believe the term "spin doctor" originated in the political world and the best play the PR game better than anyone else. I guess they have to, since they are working for, well, politicians.

I realize this will be a big shock to those who think PR consists of sitting around the hauler and carrying a driver’s helmet, but the job really is about multi-faceted communications management. When it comes to developing talking points, framing the issue, taking the message to the public via the media, or staging a photo-op, there’s no one I’d rather learn from than the likes of James Carville and Michael Deaver.

Many consider Bill Clinton, aided and abetted by “Ragin Cagin” Carville and his famous war room, to have set the standard for “spinning.” I’d say the two savviest PR presidents -- at least in my lifetime -- were John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. I’ve been researching this aspect of their careers and it has been time well-invested and certainly very instructive. (Interesting fact, at least to me, is they rank as the youngest and oldest elected presidents: Kennedy at 43; Reagan at 69.)

Kennedy and his advisors were in the vanguard of understanding media manipulation was a tool to help them obtain and wield power. That was crucial in the 1960 campaign since the senator needed to overcome the public perception he was inexperienced. For the first of his historic televised debates with Richard Nixon, JFK's handlers made sure he was well rested, suntanned, and dressed him in a dark suit so he would stand out against the light background on black-and-white TV. The visual contrast to then-Vice President Nixon’s sweaty, almost faded, appearance was striking. Polls later revealed the majority of those who watched considered Kennedy the winner; those who listened on radio favored Nixon.

There are many other examples of Kennedy’s skillful PR: The carefully orchestrated (but seemingly spontaneous) photos with his glamorous wife and young children; the touch football games; sailing off the Massachusetts coast; use of humor during the first-ever “live” televised press conferences. After his assassination, sympathetic authors cast Kennedy’s 1,000 days in the White House as Camelot, an image that endures to this day. Other historians have since revealed the warm family snapshots covered-up infidelity; pictures of a vigorous and active leader masked chronic illness and the need for potent medications.

Kennedy energized the country with the greatest and most expensive PR stunt in history when he announced his goal of sending a man -- an AMERICAN -- to the moon. You don't think that only was about science, do you? Not during the Cold War, when the U.S. battled the Soviet Union on every front, for national pride and international approval. As someone who grew up inspired by the space program, that decision alone made him seem a hero to me.

A History Channel documentary recounted a pre-election strategy meeting in which JFK showed himself to be PR brilliant, or cynical, or perhaps both.It’s not WHO you are. It’s who people THINK you are.”

Reagan (photo courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, all rights reserved) was admired even by his critics as “The Great Communicator.” A film and TV actor before his election as governor of California and then the 40th POTUS, Reagan elevated the role of Commander-in-Chief to Communicator-in-Chief for eight years. The presentation and content of Reagan’s speeches (many written by Peggy Noonan, a political wordsmith worth studying) reverberate even today. Consider this photograph: That, my friends, is the image of a strong, confident, optimistic leader. It would be most useful for anyone in the communications business – especially those charged with helping others communicate effectively – to review these videos:

First Inaugural Address, 1981: “Why shouldn’t we believe that (USA could solve its problems)? We are Americans.”

To Congress, citing warm wishes he received after being shot, 1981: “As a matter of fact, as evidence of that I have a letter with me. The letter came from Peter Sweeney. He's in the second grade in the Riverside School in Rockville Centre, and he said, ‘I hope you get well quick or you might have to make a speech in your pajamas.’ He added a postscript. `P.S. If you have to make a speech in your pajamas, I warned you.’ ”

Speech to the British Parliament about the Soviet Union, 1982: “What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

In France, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, 1984: “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

Comforting the nation when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, 1986: (The astronauts) “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

At the Berlin Wall, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” (State Department spinners removed that sentence from the original text. Reagan hand-wrote it back in.)

Farewell Address, 1989: “I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I'll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.”

Deaver was Reagan’s long-time SD and a true master of staging the visual. His photo-ops -- positioning the president with the flag, children, soldiers and red-white-blue balloons – became the template for all who followed. I highly recommend Deaver’s A Different Drummer {HarperCollins, 2001}, which I consider to be a PR textbook, and he surprised me by revealing Reagan didn’t like still photo sessions. (Although, I discovered elsewhere, Reagan admitted he knew what he looked like photographed from any angle. What a powerful bit of knowledge!)

Deaver says Reagan didn't use makeup but an occasional glass of red wine would put color into his cheeks. "I was always hypersensitive to the way Reagan looked and how he came across to the average American. If you could summarize my role with Reagan for all those years, I guess you could say I was the guy who helped him look good, but, really, all I ever did was light him well." Deaver adds that Reagan "truly believed the television camera was a friend, a device that would separate the real from the phony . . . Imagine if every candidate understood that he couldn’t fool the camera.”

Every time I see a PR rep allowing his/her driver to be interviewed in front of a Port-a-John, or with a competing sponsor’s identity in the background, or with a pulled-down uniform or backwards cap, I always think of Deaver’s acute awareness of how Reagan looked and what was in the picture with him.

(While I’m endorsing books, let me add Spin Cycle: How the White House and the Media Manipulate the News {Touchstone, 1998}, by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. I’ll admit to having used several Clinton-era PR tricks I picked-up in these pages. It was on my bookshelf until I loaned it to Chip Williams several years ago. He never returned it, despite my repeated requests.)

Occasionally, I’m asked, “Why SpinDoctor500?” It symbolizes my respect for the political pros. I don’t care if you are promoting Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick or Marco Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais or Katherine Legge, Whit Bazemore or Morgan Lucas, Patrick Long or Colin Braun, there’s much to be learned from those outside the racing realm. If one cares to, that is.

Call that, if you wish, a political statement.


[ Thursday: Covering the Coverage . . . ]