• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Thursday, September 14, 2006

OWNERS AND SPONSORS GET BLAME FOR BAD PR

Mike Kerchner’s column in the April 12 National Speed Sport News should have sent a chill throughout the motorsports industry. Especially team owners, marketing directors, program managers and anyone else charged with the responsibility to provide corporate sponsors with a worthwhile Return on Investment.

Unfortunately, it appears Mike’s message was overlooked in the heat of that week’s on-track news. That makes me shudder.

The central point of Kerchner’s “Working Together To Provide Quality Entertainment To Fans” was both sides benefit when drivers work cooperatively with journalists. NSSN’s senior editor wrote, however, the trend is in the other direction:

“While much of the time you have to call 10 different PR people to jump through the correct hoops to interview a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver, one of the great things about racers in the World of Outlaws, ASA, ARCA and all the way down to the short-track level is that they have always answered their own telephone . . . the majority of the time, they have gone out of the way to help with stories. That has slowly been changing through the years. It gets more and more difficult to track people down.”

Other pertinent excerpts:

Sponsors come (in part) from media attention . . . while we’re used to seeing racers at the top levels of the sport dodge media attention, the disease has spread . . . One voice mail becomes two and before you know it, you are scheduling a substitute story because you were never able to land the original target.

“We don’t understand why . . . the potential reward a racer can get in return for pushing 10 buttons on a cell phone and talking about himself for 15 minutes ought to be worth the sacrifice. There is no promise a story is going to help a racer secure a sponsor, but it can’t hurt. And it may also do a lot to solidify sponsorships already in place . . . The fact is that it is one of those vicious circles people talk about all the time. We, as the media, and the racers are both in the business of entertaining the fans – the same fans – and we need to help each other as much as we can.”

It would be nice to believe drivers know common courtesy means you return calls. It would be good to think even those most-in-demand understand it’s in their own self-interest to generally be available to answer a few questions. (I acknowledge the pressures on their time means it's impossible to please everyone, based on my involvement with Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Alex Zanardi and others.) Kerchner’s column, comments from other respected reporters, plus personal observations tell me it simply isn’t so.

That begs the question: Where are the PR people?

All too often, they are pretty much MIA . . . not returning phone calls, answering E-mails, or spending any meaningful time in the media center. This is not my opinion. It is a general statement of fact, based on dozens of stories told directly to me by some of the most prominent journalists in the country, as well as my own experience.

Last year, I had the honor of serving as chairman of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. One would have reasonably thought PR reps would have been anxious to get involved, given that AARWBA is the country’s oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals. One would have been wrong. When I asked a person of particular incompetence, who represents a championship-level team, to help AARWBA the actual answer I got was: “Why would we want to do that?”

Some will find this surprising, but it’s true: Several of the worst offenders work for NASCAR teams who qualified for last year’s or this year’s Chase. If the Nextel Cup series is a PR powerhouse, it’s not due to the work ethic of many team reps. The one who walks with a perennial title-contending driver from hauler-to-pits-and-back has such a reputation for uncooperativeness with at least some sportswriters as to be dubbed “Dr. No.” It would be one thing if these people were actually getting paid by the driver, and told their job was to make sure the boss wasn't bothered. They are, however, cashing from the owner -- who supposedly stays in business in-part by producing exposure value for sponsors -- or the corporate patron itself.

How sad this is where we are in the once-proud profession of legends like Jim Chapman and Bill Dredge and Bob Latford. Does the current generation – with little-or-no journalism education or experience, no true knowledge of what actually is “news,” ignorant of how to actually “pitch” a story, zero understanding of the importance of building one-on-one relationships with key media, not a clue as to developing messages or photo-ops – even know the names Chapman, Dredge or Latford? Certainly not the ones who think their role is to sit around the hauler, or who are satisfied if the car gets a few seconds of airtime on the network telecast.

Who is to blame?

I put the responsibility right at the feet of owners and corporate managers. Too many owners invest hours in interviewing prospective crew chiefs – and then pay them quite well – but don’t put even a fraction of that time -- or compensation -- into hiring a PR director. That's only the person who is the front-line soldier to project a professional image and get positive publicity results for the sponsors – and help achieve Return on Investment -- no matter the order of finish. As for the companies who put up with it, well, I think they get what they deserve.

I'd like to hear what these owners and sponsors have to say to Mike Kerchner.


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