• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A GIFT: THE WISDOM OF A LEGEND

I had the honor-of-a-lifetime to receive the first Jim Chapman Public Relations Award from Mr. Chapman himself at the 1991 CART awards ceremony in Houston. I'll treasure this moment forever. Jim holds a special career achievement award he was given from the CART PR community.



Sorry, my friends, but it's true. The past 12 months have been terrible in motorsports public relations.

The examples flow like newly-discovered water on Mars. Actually, to me, they are more stunning. Far-too-many who claim to be PR people don't know common courtesy, not to mention business 101, demands that they return phone calls and answer E-mails. Drivers are allowed to walk around with their uniforms pulled down, which not only cheats sponsors out of paid-for exposure, but creates a sloppy (read that: unprofessional) appearance. Speaking of cheating corporate patrons out of network TV time, there's the cheap trick of "The Terrible Towels," previously discussed here. Some reps apparently are too preoccupied chewing gum as their client spokesmen do interviews with competing sponsor ID -- or even a Port-a-John -- as backdrop.

The desperately troubled world of open-wheel racing brought the dumbed-down state of motorsports PR into sharp focus. Stunts gained priority over basics. The announcement of Marco Andretti's move into the IRL -- a no-brainer for publicity fireworks -- went off more like a sparkler because it was scheduled just before Christmas. The confirmation that Danica Patrick was switching teams was an equal near-dud. Once respected sponsors, who had a solid program with good value given the available funding, bowed to secondary status with teams possessing failed PR departments simply so they could sniff after the shallow rewards of celebrity-for-celebrity's sake. The very week Americans rose up against the government's proposed Dubai ports deal, Bobby Rahal issued a news release that his son would race for Team Lebanon in A1 GP, with a quote about being very proud of their Lebanese heritage and for Graham to represent "the Arab world." That bit of timing displayed not a tin ear to U.S. public opinion, but more like an iron ear. Nothing, of course, can top Cheever Racing's post-Watkins Glen release, which brought even more attention to the fact that media darling Patrick blamed Eddie for her crash, and a renewal of his feud with the world-famous Andretti family. Quoting from the team's own missive: "Run-ins with two popular drivers ended with Cheever . . . being called an 'idiot' twice on national television . . . " That one will be cited for years in PR classes as an example of what NOT to do.

James P. Chapman would mourn the condition of the business he loved.

I'm biased, because Jim was my best friend, but Mr. Chapman was not only a great man, he was one of history's great practitioners -- and innovators -- of the PR art. Testimony to this is the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's annual award for excellence in motorsports PR is named in his honor and memory.

In November 1994, I sat down with Jim in a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., country club to record his advice on the PR biz for a trade publication. I'm not certain, but I believe it was his last formal interview, as Jim died in October 1996 at age 80. I reprint the introduction and transcript below exactly the way it was published in March 1995. His wise counsel remains as true today as it was more than a decade ago. In fact, it is wisdom for the ages.

Anyone who has known, or better yet, worked with, James P. Chapman is richer for the experience. After a journalism career and World War II service in the Air Force, Chapman left the New York Times to join Ford as regional PR director. He hired Babe Ruth as consultant to Ford's American Legion Junior Baseball sponsorship and traveled with him for two years and was at Ruth's bedside when he died. Chapman started his own PR firm in 1950 and worked with Bill France Sr. to co-promote the Motor City 250 as part of Detroit's 250th birthday celebration in 1951. He came to Indy Cars in 1967 with client Olsonite's sponsorship of Dan Gurney and pioneered trackside hospitality tents. PPG retained him in 1981 to run its CART series sponsorship and his impact was such that Indy Car Racing magazine named him Most Influential Man of the Decade. He retired after 1992 but was honorary chairman of Mario Andretti's Arrivederci season.

Q. What are the differences in dealing with the media now as opposed to when you started?
A. There is a great deal of difference. In the early days of my PR firm and with Ford, you knew everybody, almost intimately. I knew the automotive editors, the financial editors, the sports editors, the city editors, the managing editors, and usually the publishers. Today, many of the writers and columnists don't even go to their offices. They work at home. In auto racing, however, I think it's better because there are so many publications assigning reporters to cover the events. You see them at the tracks on a regular basis and that makes it easier.

Q. How do you develop those relationships?
A. At PPG, we had a great tool for that in our hospitality tent at all the tracks. We invited the media for continental breakfast and lunch. We attracted virtually all the major media people and I'd see them two, sometimes three times a day. That was a great asset. Many things have changed, but one that hasn't is hospitality and entertainment. I still think it's very important.

Q. Media observers have spoken of a lowering of journalistic standards. Too many stories seem to be based on rumors. How do you feel about this trend?
A. As a former journalist, I decry that method of reporting. I despise stories that use rumors and anonymous sources. The tabloids in London exist on rumors. I know of cases where so-called 'close sources' have been quoted when, in fact, the reporter made it up just as a means of getting his own opinion into the story. It's lousy journalism. I've written personal letters -- not for publication -- to editors complaining about that sort of thing.

Q. How do you deal with that kind of story?
A. You go directly to the reporter. I've always tried never to go over the head of anybody and that would be an absolutely last resort. I can't ever recall doing that. Usually, I've been able to work it out, not always to my complete satisfaction or that of my client.

Q. With the tremendous corporate investment in sports today, there is a lot of pressure on PR people to get the sponsor's name into stories. What's the most effective way to do this?
A. Don't overdo it. In my stories, both financial and in motorsports, I always tried to limit mention of clients to one time. I think that makes it more acceptable to the media. Also, you have to try to directly connect the name to the news you are publicizing.

Q. What's the most important quality in a successful PR person?
A. Always be available to the media and give them complete and accurate information. I emphasize accuracy ahead of speed. The No. 1 asset to have is a reputation among reporters and editors that your information is accurate and fair.

Q. Should a PR person ever lie to a reporter?
A. On the surface, I can't see any reason to do so. I don't remember ever having to do so. The one difficult area would be if you felt you had to protect a client when it comes to some personal matter. In that case, it would be better to try to deflect the question a bit, if you can. I don't believe you can say 'No comment,' because that has come to have a negative connotation and most reporters would take it as a confirmation of a negative rumor. I must say, however, in auto racing for the most part, questions of a personal nature have no business being asked in the first place.I'm glad to see some organizations have been working to wrap 2006 with positive momentum going into 2007. The Grand American Road Racing Association was able to showcase Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Sam Hornish Jr. at last week's two-day test at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon (left) met the media after testing the Daytona Prototype he'll co-drive with Wayne Taylor and Max Angelelli in the January 27-28 Rolex 24 at Daytona. The Fox network will cover the first 90 minutes of the 24 "live" before turning coverage over to SPEED. Fresh corporate and series logos also were unveiled. Not surprisingly, another on-the-move team is Kenny Bernstein's new Funny Car operation, which has primary sponsorship from Monster Energy drink (which wisely will spotlight its relationship with Bernstein to the media by presenting the January AARWBA newsletter). Bernstein has also announced associate sponsorship with AlphaTrade.com for his car as well as son Brandon's Budweiser Top Fueler. AlphaTrade.com is a leader in providing real-time stock market data, global news and high-quality financial information to millions of investors throughout the world.Tony Schumacher, John Force, Frank Kimmel, Jorg Bergmeister, Luis Diaz and J.R. Hildebrand are the latest to confirm their attendance at the 37th AARWBA All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. My thanks to Mike Lewis, Chris Dirato, Dave Densmore, Barry Bronson, Bob Carlson, Adam Saal, Bob Dickinson, Drew Brown, Tom Anderson and Tamy Valkosky for their help. And to Porsche and Lowe's for going the extra mile for AARWBA. Jack Roush will be the featured speaker and Sam Hornish Jr. and Sebastien Bourdais also will be on hand. On the 40th anniversary of his third Indy 500 victory, A.J. Foyt's 1967 winning Sheraton-Thompson Coyote-Ford will be on display in the lobby along with Schumacher's record-setting Army Top Fueler. I'm dinner co-chair with Gil Bouffard. Go to http://aarwba.org for tickets, Hyatt reservations at the special AARWBA rate, and other information.

Max Papis' father, Cesare, died Saturday at age 65 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. Thoughts to my friend Max, popular with media and fans throughout the racing world.

A closing thank you to media outlets that invited me to share my views on the Business of Racing this year: 12 News TV and radio station KXAM in Phoenix, the Arizona Republic op-ed page, WIBC radio in Indianapolis and especially Brahm Resnik, Jamie and Betsy Reynolds of Racing Roundup Arizona, Dave Wilson, plus Dave Argabright for asking me to write some thoughts for the VIP edition of his book with Chris Economaki, Let 'Em All Go!

And, thanks to the readers of this blog, especially those who call and write to share comments and insights, as well as tell others about what we do in this spec of cyberspace. After some recharging and retooling, let's all of us continue The Great Adventure next year.

[ More Tuesday, January 9, 2007 . . . ]