• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

BUILD 'EM UP/TEAR 'EM DOWN

This old saw has more miles on it than the one used by Mr. Fix-It. It also happens to be truer than a laser leveler:

The media builds people/groups up, and then tears them down.

The most recent example? NASCAR.

While I don't have numbers to quantify it, it sure seemed that the closing weeks of the Chase featured more "woe unto NASCAR" stories than there were about champion-to-be Jimmie Johnson. Now, let me be clear: It is FACT that TV ratings were down at all but a handful of races this season vs. 2005. (I consider the 10.4 percent overnight drop at Homestead's championship finale a definite eye-opener, especially since that's -23% since 2004.) Large sections of empty seats were obvious from overhead camera shots at many speedways. (Those at Indianapolis made me, as someone who has gone to IMS for almost four decades, sad but not really surprised.) So, these absolutely were legitimate stories.

I think a bit of context also is legit. And I'll say this up-front: NO sports organization that I know of works harder than NASCAR in publicizing, promoting, marketing and selling its product. Almost 30 years ago, when I asked Bill France Jr. why he was so confident of NASCAR's long-term success, his answer was clear and confident: "We work at it day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year." President Mike Helton (right) proved that again last December by attending the AARWBA dinner in Indianapolis, one night after the Nextel Cup awards in New York City.

No company, including Microsoft or Wal-Mart, can sustain the level of growth NASCAR has generated in the last decade. When Microsoft hit the occasional business speed bump, no financial journalist called for Bill Gates to get out. Wal-Mart announced some weak sales figures the other day but I haven't heard a single stock analyst say, "Dump it all!"

In considering the recent media attitude, let's also consider the atmospherics. The NASCAR regulars were tired at the end of the marathon season. They were in ill temper due to the overcrowded/inadequate work facilities at Phoenix and Homestead. Those who used to enjoy an easy drive to Darlington on Labor Day weekend now endure a coach-class cross-country round-trip to California. In short, many were just plain grumpy.

The pack mentality throughout journalism makes the pack racing at Talladega seem like rush hour in Roundup, Montana. Network news directors follow the lead of the New York Times' front page. In sports, many take their direction from ESPN's SportsCenter and USA Today. So, when UST put "NASCAR's growth slows after 15 years in fast lane" on P1 Nov. 15 -- four days before the Nextel Cup concluder -- that was like waving the green flag at certain reporters. They were ready to take a shot -- and did.

Was it fair? I say the true answer to that rests with the experience and credibility of each individual journo. The bottom line, for now, is that while NASCAR had a down year, every sports organization in North America -- save the NFL and Major League Baseball -- would love to have such problems. I don't agree that the arrival of ABC/ESPN alone will reverse the slide, but it sure is premature to push the panic button.

While some of the above made me shake my head, what made me laugh was the idea of a shorter schedule or reduced race distances. Would the FIRST person -- driver, promoter, or, yes, journalist -- willing to reduce his/her income in accordance with the reduced work load please step forward. (!)

I do share one concern: There are major drawbacks to the trend of pushing back race start times so telecasts move near-or-into prime time, where the TV suits say larger audiences await. That puts increased deadline pressure on writers. Much more worrisome to me, that is asking the ticket-buying public to accept getting home even later Sunday night, when work or school obligations await the next morning. Think about this one again, please, NASCAR.
Newsworthy:

* Last Friday's USA Today sports page one had a graphic titled "NASCAR laps other motor sports." It showed the results of an ESPN Sports Poll on the "favorite type of racing" among fans. NASCAR doom-and-gloomers, please read carefully: 1) NASCAR, 57.4 percent; 2) Motorcycles, 12.4; 3) NHRA, 12.2; 4) Formula One, 6.8; 5) IRL, 6.2; 6) Champ Car, 1.3.

* With Champ Car joining the IRL on the ABC/ESPN networks, what I can't wait to see is the level of promotion given to each group. Will it make a difference that IRL gets a rights fee vs. Champ Car's time buy? Just as important will be how such promos are designed to differentiate one series from the other. (!)

* As someone who has long appreciated a pro-active and creative approach to PR and publicity, let me give a call to Wrigley's. At Phoenix International Raceway, the company announced its new sponsorship of Reed Sorenson and David Stremme in the Busch Series, and Juan Montoya in three Nextel Cup races. Wrigley’s Spearmint, Doublemint, Big Red, Juicy Fruit and Winterfresh brands will be featured. Journalists were given a tin, which looked like it might contain mints, but inside was a computer data stick appearing to be a pack of gum. The news release and team bios were in Word document form. A well-done to Brian Wright, at Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., and the others involved. It made me go back and take a look at the "press kit in a can" I did for U.S. Can Co.'s sponsorship of the Andretti family back in 1986. That got blurbed in USA Today, AutoWeek and elsewhere.I'm happy to report that triple Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais (left) will make his first appearance at the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. Team voting is currently underway among AARWBA members. Bourdais, who has been elected to the last two Teams in the open-wheel category, will be a welcome guest at this 37th annual gathering of the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals. Thanks to Champ Car PR Director Steve Shunck for his help. Jack Roush will be the featured speaker. Other highlights of the evening will be presentation of the new Auto Racing Safety and Humanitarian Service Award to HANS Device developers Robert Hubbard of Michigan State University and Jim Downing; Pioneer in Racing Award to Dan Partel, managing director of the European Formula Drivers Association; and Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations. Popular broadcaster Bob Jenkins will serve as dinner Master of Ceremonies for the second consecutive year.

Tickets, for the public as well as media and sponsors, are available by contacting AARWBA President Dusty Brandel at 818/842-7005 or aarwba@compuserve.com. Information also is available at the http://aarwba.org web site, click on the “banquet” link, and discounted Hyatt room reservations can be made there. I'm dinner co-chair along with Gil Bouffard.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

CUSTOMER SERVICE, Part 2

Steve Van Houten manages operations of the Ford Racing motorcoach -- and is one of the automaker's best ambassadors. He's pictured above at Phoenix International Raceway two weeks ago.

I've witnessed tremendous growth in the Valley of the Sun in the 12 years I've called Scottsdale home. Growth has its pluses but the negatives are BAD. Traffic headaches, once a seasonal occurrence when the "Snow Birds" come here from Canada and the Midwest for the winter months, now are a daily challenge.

And, as I got into last week, customer service has become more of a lost art than Andy Warhol's missing portrait of Lenin. The excuse I constantly hear from local managers is they don't have the staff to keep-up with increased demand. It's one thing when I've been told in a Fry's supermarket to come back in an hour for two pounds of ground sirloin (!), but the true wide-eyer came when I went in to my Chase bank branch just after opening, only to find no teller windows were staffed -- a fact the receptionist and back-office managers didn't bother to talk about with those of us in line. (!) In the last year I've endured unacceptable lack-of service at high-end Hamra Jewelers and even at an auto dealership where a top selling point is "unparalleled" attention to the customer. (!) From personal experience, I advise begging the government for help before turning to John Alden or First Choice Health Insurance, where employee training seminars apparently include demonstrations on the proper technique on how to thumb your nose at someone seeking service. (!)

Shame on our society for acquiescing to lesser standards applied by lesser people. (A product, I say, of poor parenting, the dumbed-down public school system, and a rejection of the principle of personal accountability.) After all, millions would have watched O.J. Simpson's (now wisely canceled) If I Did It TV show. The motorsports industry reflects this. Earlier this year, a young PR person asked me for career advice. My answer: Return phone calls, reply to E-mails, and do what you say you'll do. The comparison with far-too-many others will be noticed!

This Thanksgiving week, let me acknowledge five people who understand customer service, and who know those qualities also apply to personal friendship. I'm thankful for them:

+ Steve Van Houten. The Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway wrapped another season on-the-road for Van Houten. He drove the Ford Racing Prevost motorcoach over 60,000 miles this year to 35 events. Steve's been doing this for 15 years and worked as a relief driver for John Madden's bus. In an era where lazy people commonly dismiss errors as "not important," Steve pays attention to the details. His welcoming smile and handshake and positive attitude makes Steve a tremendous ambassador -- and asset -- to Ford, especially valuable during these troubled times for the automaker.

+ Dusty Brandel. Dusty has served as executive director, and then president, of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association for more than 30 years. (AARWBA is the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals.) Let me attest, from first-hand experience, that it can be a tedious and frequently thankless job. (There's nothing glamorous about routine but essential paperwork like processing membership forms.) AARWBA would have ceased to exist long ago without her committed efforts. (The 37th AARWBA All-America Team dinner will be Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis.)

+ Kelly Butz. She's the revenue manager at the Indy Hyatt and a key reason why the AARWBA dinner will be staged there for the second consecutive year. As chairman of AARWBA's 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2005, it was my call (along with Dusty Brandel) to move the All-America Team dinner to Indy and the Hyatt. That's one decision I've never regretted. I've been involved in countless such functions over the decades of my career and no one has ever provided the level of customer service and attention to detail Kelly knows is essential to make any project a success. I can think of a lot of people in our business who should come to the AARWBA dinner if for no other reason than to see Kelly's work and learn from her example.

+ Mike Harris. He's been AP's national motorsports writer for more than a quarter-century, and my friend for almost that long. A lot of us consider him the most important media person covering racing, but you wouldn't know it dealing with Mike, whose ego is a fraction of that of many lesser journalistic lights. Mike has served the AP, its members, and the sport with great professionalism. I value his straightforward approach and common-sense advice.

+ Mike Hollander. As I've often admitted, I'm not the best when it comes to computers and the Internet. Mike, on the other hand, is the brightest person I know when it comes to these things. He's been kind -- and patient -- enough to help me through many high-tech crises, even when I knew he knew my questions were really dumb. I also respect Mike as a pioneer motorsports on-line journalist, currently via http://motorsportsforum.com and Racing Information Systems. He's brought these skills to AARWBA, as webmaster, All-America Team ceremony producer, and national VP.Homestead Rear-View Mirror:

* Jeff Gordon proved again he's the savviest driver in the garage area. How? He was the only one to make it a point to thank NBC for its six years of NASCAR coverage. Jeff's post-race comments reminded me of May 1, 1994, when Dale Earnhardt got out of the No. 3 Chevrolet in victory lane at Talladega, and the first thing he did was offer sympathy to the family, friends and fans of Ayrton Senna, killed earlier that day. No other superstar of that time would have thought of it.

* NBC's NASCAR finale was fine, but highlighted (again) two issues that MUST be addressed come the 2007 ABC/ESPN, Fox, TNT and SPEED race telecasts: 1) Pit-road reporters have to sharpen their questions. Dave Burns' contributions to our understanding of what was about to happen amounted to asking Jeff Gordon what role he hoped to play in Sunday's championship event, and how Kasey Kahne thought he'd do. As if Jeff and Kasey were going to say, "Hey, I hope it blows-up on the first lap, so I can leave early!" (Both, of course, said they wanted to win.) With NASCAR and its network partners looking to address the ratings issue, they should realize focused questions which lead to interesting answers helps keep the remote control on the table. (!) There are announcer coaches: It's time for some money to be spent on interview coaches. 2) The (thankfully) last installment of "Wally's World" was nothing but an exercise in egoism. That was time that should have been spent on legitimate news (of which there was no shortage, including driver and team changes, the battle for 35th in owner points, etc.) This kind of segment should be parked -- permanently.

* It was Winston's ace sports marketing department that created the championship celebration ceremony as we know it, although NASCAR has now assumed full control of its staging. The championship jacket has been a traditional element, even though it covers the ID of the driver's team sponsors, and usually is so garish no one would consider wearing it away from the track. So, I found it interesting that the jacket put on Todd Bodine Friday night appeared to be a standard Craftsman Truck Series coat, with a logo so small as to be unreadable by TV viewers. Why did they bother? The Busch Series jacket presented to Kevin Harvick Saturday night was of the full-blown big-and-bold graphics style that corporate marketers have come to love. Strangely, though, Jimmie Johnson didn't receive a Nextel Cup jacket Sunday.

* Jenna Fryer, at Phoenix, and Mike Harris, at Homestead, used the AP blog to bemoan the unsatisfactory size of those track's media centers. It's a fact that NASCAR's "major league" status brings with it the necessity of "major league" media facilities. However, I'm reminded of a long-ago Eastern Motorsports Press Association convention, during which a panel session with local speedway operators decended into complaints about credentials, parking and even the lack of free food. My friend Nick Nagurny, then assistant sports editor at the old Philadelphia Bulletin, ended this by standing up and providing some much-needed perspective. "My readers don't care if I have a seat in the press box, where I park, or if I get lunch. They care about what happens in the race." Amen. Such issues are legitimate but best addressed within the industry and through professional organizations like AARWBA.

[ There's lots more to say about NASCAR and the Chase, plus other topics, and I'll do that next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

CUSTOMER SERVICE

When necessary changes were made to the media credentialing process for the Checker Auto Parts 500k, Phoenix International Raceway's communications manager Tami Nealy (above) did just that -- COMMUNICATE! An E-mail explaining the new process was sent to the media weeks before the race and there were lots of signs to direct journalists to the right place and remind photographers of photo meetings. Well done. Also, PIR announced it will join with Phoenix native J.J. Yeley for a golf tournament March 8, to benefit the Phoenix Children’s Hospital.


Let me let you in on a secret: Even though I've known and liked Richard Childress since the mid-1970s, and have long respected Jeff Burton's common-sense professionalism, I'm not troubled their team won't win the Nextel Cup championship.

Why? The answer can be found in the legendary loyalty of NASCAR fans to companies that support their favorite sport. Actually, in my case, it's the REVERSE of that marketing fact.

Cingular, sponsor of the Childress-Burton No. 31 Chevrolet, is my wireless provider. More accurately, sometimes provider. I used to be with AT&T, whose wireless business was bought by Cingular. Under AT&T, the strength and quality of the cell signal to my residence wasn't great, but it usually worked. Since the buyout, it has been no Cingular Sensation, with many multiples of "Call Failed" messages vs. successful connections. Those that go through result in more cut-outs than created by kindergartners with construction paper. Incoming calls almost never make the phone ring, but rather, go straight into voice mail.

My repeated communications to Cingular's so-called "customer service" department have gone unanswered. Cingular has shown me zip, ZERO consideration . . . but has no problem sending a bill every month.

Customer service has gone to hell in this country, and sad to say, that includes in the motorsports industry. As I've previously written, way too many so-called "PR" people -- and I mean from MAJOR teams, sponsors, tracks and sanctioning groups -- apparently don't comprehend that the media are effectively their "customers" and act accordingly. I continue to find it incredible that so many don't even know common courtesy demands that voice messages and E-mails MUST be answered.

I have the great honor of administering the process of selecting the Jim Chapman Award recipient, for excellence in motorsports public relations. (The 2006 winner will be announced January 13 at the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis.) I'm biased because Jim was my best friend, but like Jim's close friend Babe Ruth, Chapman remains a legend. While Jim was THE consummate professional, and a true gentleman, he also called 'em like he saw 'em and that was another reason he was so widely respected.

It is in that spirit that I tell you I've had enough. It's time to go on-the-record about good and bad customer service.

+ NASCAR's "hot" garage passes are limited in number, but transferrable. Some track publicists have discovered local newspapers and TV stations send different photographers or camerapersons on different days, meaning these precious pieces of paper get wasted when taken home by media not returning the next day. To address this issue, Phoenix International Raceway's Tami Nealy put a new system in place for last weekend's Checker Auto Parts 500k, where newspeople would pick up and return "hot" passes in the infield media center. Realizing change from established procedure could be confusing, Nealy E-mailed notice of the new process well in advance, and posted plenty of signs directing journos to the pick-up point. It seemed to me to work without difficulty, mainly because Tami remembered a basic part of her job: She COMMUNICATED!

+ In my capacity as a co-chair of the AARWBA dinner, I recently asked Don Schumacher Racing Senior Vice President Mike Lewis for the three-time Top Fuel champion Army dragster to be displayed at this event. Mike responded immediately, he followed-up with the Hyatt, and all was set within a few days. Proving, again, that a CHAMPIONSHIP organization performs away from, as well as at, the track.

- One might think DIRT Motorsports would be interested in building its relationship with the media, especially for its World of Outlaws series, given the split in sprint car racing. Following that logic, last month, I wrote DIRT PR VP Chris Dolack about AARWBA. I'm still waiting for the courtesy of a reply . . . .

- At the start of every season, I automatically receive in the mail the media guides for NASCAR's Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck series; also those of NHRA, Champ Car, ALMS and Grand American Road Racing. The one exception among the "big-time" organizations? IRL. Of course, I've only been working in Indy-type racing since the 1970s, and am member No. 1,000 in the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers. A small, but telling, example of why things are the way they are in open-wheel . . .

Since this lack of customer service is the hottest of hot-button issues to me, I'll have more to say next week . . .The most disappointing thing I saw at Phoenix was actually something I didn't see -- and you probably overlooked: Somehow, on Veterans' Day weekend, the No. 01 Chevrolet ran without its usual Army ID and colors. A sad bit of sponsorship scheduling. I'm glad Tony Schumacher came through with his third consecutive NHRA Top Fuel championship in the Army dragster at Pomona. Once again, however, NHRA.com suffered from an apparent lack of server capacity. As fans -- lacking "live" TV coverage -- tried to find out who won the Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle championships, the home page continually failed to display.


[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, November 06, 2006

STORIES/$TORIES; INTERVIEWS/INTERVIEW$

Defending Checker Auto Parts 500k winner Kyle Busch visited the Valley of the Sun Oct. 24 to publicize this weekend's NASCAR events at Phoenix International Raceway. Busch was sporting enough to smile for this photo-op on the streets of Tempe. PIR recently received two awards for tourism and economic development from Westmarc, a consortium of civic and business leaders, which promotes a positive image for western Maricopa County. Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. will try to qualify for his first Busch Series race, Saturday's Arizona Travel 200. Juan Montoya is entered, too.


I am friends with quite a few racetrack PR directors. A basic part of the job is to set-up driver interviews with local media in the weeks leading up to their speedway's event. Even at most Nextel Cup ovals -- and even during the Chase -- it's necessary to work hard to fill those empty grandstand seats.

Publicity really is all about selling, you know . . . or didn't you?

Here's something far-too-many don't understand: There are stories and then there are stories that help sell tickets. There are interviews and then there are interviews that interest people in going out and seeing for themselves.

I can't help but roll my eyes listening to many local sports radio talkers when they try to talk racing. It's easy to tell they really don't understand the subject just by their phrasing and the super-superficial questions asked to driver guests. ("Do you enjoy coming out to Phoenix?" As if any driver is going to say "NO!" Yeah, that's the ticket to promote your sponsor and sell T-shirts!) Just last week, I heard a Valley of the Sun host say that Elliott Sadler drives a Ford and is in the Chase. (!)

Sure, this counts as airtime, and it looks good on a PR activity report to management. But it surely does not create event "buzz" or contribute to the box-office bottom line.

Some PRers I know recognize this issue and try to deal with it. Pre-interview, they provide copies of news and feature stories about the guest, and a few even dare to send over suggested questions. Sometimes that helps, but too often, these chats are the biggest duds since Indy Cars ran Atlanta. Sharp drivers I've worked with, like Mario Andretti, Gil de Ferran and Nigel Mansell, actually enjoyed talking with knowledgeable media people. A positive encounter made it much more likely they'd agree to future requests for a few minutes of their time. A flopper, though, was considered a waste of valuable minutes and made my next proposition as dicey as oval racin' in the rain.

My experience has been that many media folks are willing to at least speed-read clips -- might be a good idea or clever line to borrow -- but most resist planted questions. Journalistic integrity, you know. So, how to make the strictly stick-and-ball types sound like they've been reading NASCAR Scene for a decade?

Why not ask them? "What can I do to help you have a good interview?" A simple gesture, to be sure, but let's be honest: 1) Most of these guys (and, for the most part, they are guys) want to look slick and sound smart. (Good for the ego -- and the career.); 2) Such help means less effort on their part.

Anything else? Try to steer them toward friendly in-the-know experts in your area, preferably, those perceived as "independent" and who will tell them the "straight" story and guide them in the "right" direction. A local voice-of-authority is frequently appealing to those cynical after being pitched non-stop with spin and hype.

My great friend, the late PR legend Jim Chapman, was regarded as a gentleman and had such stature that he was frequently quoted as an admired industry expert even when he had a client who was part of the story. Now, that's respect!Texas tales:

* Two victories in the battle against promoters who fail to label races that are not run to a mile distance -- which is what the average customer assumes -- as kilometers. Both the AP and NASCAR.com clearly reported Friday's Chevy Silverado "350" as being 350k. Too bad SPEED didn't do the same. Note: This Sunday's Checker "500" at Phoenix is 500 kilometers.

* A silver lining to Ray Dunlap's recent one-race suspension is Krista Voda has been moved into the host's chair for SPEED's pre-Truck race shows. Voda, who was a solid anchor on the old Totally NASCAR, is better suited to that role than Dunlap, who is a good (and respected) pit reporter.

Popular broadcaster Bob Jenkins, my friend going back to when he anchored ESPN's first CART race telecast at Milwaukee in June 1980, will MC the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's 37th All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. Since I'm a dinner co-chair, I consider Bob's participation to be great news. Also, the Army NHRA Top Fuel car will be on display in the Hyatt lobby, next to the dinner registration area. My thanks to Mike Lewis, senior VP of Don Schumacher Racing, for this courtesy to the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals. Jack Roush will be the featured speaker.For tickets and program ads and Hyatt room reservations at a discounted rate, go to http://aarwba.org or E-mail President Dusty Brandel at aarwba@compuserve.com . Contact me for newsletter and other sponsorship opportunities.
[ Tomorrow is election day. I encourage you to cast an INFORMED vote. I'll be serving as a local election judge. More Blogging the Chase Tuesday (Nov. 14) . . . ]