• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

TURF BATTLE

With hundreds of journalists and PR people (in name only, in too-many cases) assembled at Daytona for NASCAR's most important week of the year, it's a good time to wave the red flag on a trend more worrisome than Toyota is to Jack Roush.

Business managers increasingly are making decisions that should be the province of publicists.

This is nothing new in golf and tennis. Want to request an interview with Tiger or Annika or Roger or Maria? You gotta go through IMG or some other management agency. The fact that this is growing in motorsports hit home with me in the run-up to last month's AARWBA All-America Team dinner. As event co-chairman, I was one of a few people charged with contacting various PRers to arrange for drivers -- elected by the media to the 37th annual Team -- to attend and accept their awards. In two instances, AARWBA's invitation was turned-down NOT by the designated media rep, but by the driver's business manager. (!)

Such agents may understand biz, but they don't know the needs of reporters/editors/producers. Almost ALL of the ones I've encountered over the years look at the media strictly in terms of how to make money for their clients (and, ultimately, themselves). That is a narrow, short-term view, and one that most often does not serve the needs of corporate sponsors car owners must have to pay the bills to put a driver on the track in the first place. (!)

Perhaps THE most egregious example can be found in the unhappy world of open wheel. One prominent racer long ago came under the strong influence of a lawyer-agent, who presumed to include in his portfolio of vast knowledge "how-to" with the media. (The rock-solid fact that said agent has left himself open to some very negative press over the years apparently was lost on this $$-in-his-eyes competitor.) That led, at least indirectly, to the racer employing a profoundly weak communications staff. The agent's own in-house "PR" . . . well . . . that is another story.

This encroachment on professional turf should be resisted by any legitimate publicist.

Meanwhile, let me extend this argument to any organization that places its PR/communications function within the marketing/sales department. Yes, it's true, virtually every management executive I know considers PR/comm to be just another selling tool . . . but what a terrible message that sends to the media community. Serious journos are looking to be informed, not pitched (at least that's the impression a true pro leaves). In this age of photo-ops, talking points and sound bites, a company that doesn't have an accomplished PR pro as vice president in charge of the communications/media relations department simply isn't up to speed.Tallying the week:

- ANYONE who cares about serious journalism was offended by the cable networks' wall-to-wall coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death. With everything else happening in the world . . . well . . . some of us still remember when there were standards. Anyone who still doubted that CELEBRITY-FOR-CELEBRITY'S-SAKE has overtaken all other considerations (such as, say, accomplishment) in today's media decision-making mindset should now understand that issue is decided.

- Describing a tight pack of cars during Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, Darrell Waltrip called it a "tornado" -- bad taste in the aftermath of the series of deadly tornados just a few days ago just a few miles from Daytona International Speedway. Of course, given TV's star system, I'll bet not one producer pulled Waltrip aside afterwards to caution him on his choice of words.

- Last week, in explaining why top candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may skip early presidential debates, Politico.com writer Roger Simon wrote this: "The stakes at debates are extremely high because reporters attend them for the same reason people attend the Indy 500: to see who crashes and burns."

+ The second season of Driving Force, with John Force and family, is scheduled to begin March 27 on the A&E Network. The show will move from Mondays to Tuesdays this year, still at 9 p.m. (Eastern).

? I've often said ESPN2's NHRA shows may well be motorsports' best-produced telecasts, so I won't race to conclusions, but I do hope the Pomona coverage doesn't indicate it will be All-Ashley-All-the-Time. I agree Ashley Force's pro debut was the No. 1 story, but so much time shouldn't have been devoted to John's daughter as to shut-out the Pro Stock class from any mention on Sunday's pre-race show. Especially when the lightweight questions to her included: "Are you ready for race day?" ABC/ESPN came across as desperate to protect its IRL investment in the fawning, falling-all-over-itself coverage of Danica Patrick in 2005, and we don't need a repeat of that embarrassment. Meanwhile, Mike Dunn -- who I've previously said might well be TV's best racing analyst -- still has me perplexed by this: Dunn said Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney and John Force are the four big figures in NHRA history and so Ashley is the first second-generation driver from that star field. Many of us would say six-time champion and first-to-300-mph Kenny Bernstein is a part of that galaxy and, thus, son Brandon was the first superstar second-generation competitor.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]