• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

LIFE's MOMENTS

I want to begin by sending my sympathy -- and respect -- to Eric Medlen's family, friends, fans and everyone at John Force Racing and in the larger NHRA community. Those of us who have been through similar situations with client/friend drivers understand what they are enduring.

On a professional level, we all can learn from how the Force group handled this case of crisis communications. There were daily news releases on Medlen's condition, brief and to-the-point, mostly in easy-to-understand form. I applaud their admonition against disgusting-and-disrespectful speculation that spilled across the Internet. (We have to be honest and admit media coverage was constrained by lack of available video of the accident.)

Of note, the releases were quickly posted on Force's website, so fans could stay informed. This was exactly how it should be done. It amazes me how many sponsors and teams, when dealing with this kind of emergency, don't utilize their sites as a first-line communications tool. The all-time worst example of this came in the aftermath of Alex Zanardi's terrible accident in 2001. That happened in Germany, and with most media outlets overwhelmed with coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, information was at a premium. Yet it took Mo Nunn Racing 70 hours before the first word on Zanardi's condition was posted on their site. Later, I spoke with Mo about this, and he admitted the team had no crisis communication plan. "We were all in shock. We didn't know what to do," is what Nunn said to me. Which, of course, is exactly the point why such a plan has to be in place -- beforehand. Over the years, I've been retained by several companies/teams to design and write their crisis communication plan. It's not a pleasant thing to think about -- but it MUST be done.

My thoughts especially are with John Force, one of racing's all-time greatest champions and personalities, who now is watching daughter Ashley drive an 8,000-horsepower Funny Car. And with Force's longtime PR guru, Dave Densmore, who dealt with this crisis while recovering from recent quintuple heart bypass surgery. Funeral services for Medlen will be tomorrow in Brownsburg, Ind. Fans can leave messages at goodbyeeric@castrol.com. These will go into a scrapbook that will be presented to the Medlen family.

(The second season of Driving Force is scheduled to begin tonight on A&E Network at 10 p.m. Eastern. Promos for the premiere episode, however, make it clear that show would be inappropriate to air under the current difficult circumstances. I'm told another episode will go in its place.)
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ESPN's SportsCenter aired an exclusive interview with Paul Dana's widow, Tonya Bergeson-Dana, Saturday morning in anticipation of that evening's IndyCar Series opener, one year after Dana's fatal crash. Here are quotes taken from a transcript provided by ESPN:

(On the cause of the accident): "The IRL has been able to tell us, through examining some data, that Paul was going at speeds that were on par with the speeds that the other drivers were going through at that point. They were also able to tell us that he hit a piece of debris just before hitting Ed Carpenter’s car . . . If you hit a piece of debris, there’s nothing you can do, whether you’re a rookie or whether you’re the most experienced driver in the world."

(On why she did the interview): "Now that it’s been a year, it’s still obviously emotionally raw, but I want people to remember what a great guy he was, what a visionary he was, and that he was way ahead of the curve (bringing ethanol into the series). Being able to tell everybody that, ‘This is something that happened, it’s a racing accident, it’s nobody’s fault,’ is something that’s really important to us, for people to understand."
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When this blog debuted last July 10, I wrote: "I'm one of those people who believe it's essential to keep learning . . ." Last week's posting provided such an opportunity.

In my first version, I called for SPEED Formula One analyst Steve Matchett to stop referring to lap times that end in "zero" as "dead." That quickly brought an E-mail from my friend Joe Benson, the popular California radio personality and PA announcer, who wrote: "I believe he's saying 'zed' -- a common Australian/Canadian (and probably other Brit colonies) term for 'z' or 'zero'. . . I first became aware of the term when Billy Gibbons told me how taken aback he and the boys were at being called Zed Zed Top . . ."

I've made about 50 trips (combined) to Australia, Canada and England, but have never heard "zed." But, since I wasn't able to immediately investigate, I took down my comment. Although I don't have a first-hand explanation from Matchett, research did show that in some countries "zed" can stand for "z" and that translates into "zero."

So, I learned something, and now I hope you have as well. My thanks to Joe and others who provided this education. It does, however, take me back to my central point that it's essential for broadcasters to "know their audience" and in this case that means Steve should speak to his U.S. viewers in a way they understand. Sorry, but I doubt many Americans know the equation is "zed=z=zero." (!)
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* Staying on the "know your audience" theme, I noted at Sebring that ALMS has adopted international flagging rules. As such, no white flag was waved, to signal the last lap. With 11 of 12 ALMS races this season taking place in the U.S. (one in Canada), seems to me this is a mistake. It's a basic marketing error to confuse your customers. American fans understand the significance of the white flag; why change? Also, I was disappointed that (again) the official results sheet didn't provide the winner's average speed. Historical reference points are at the core of our understanding of what happened. Was a record set? How does it compare with last year's event? Race results that don't provide basic details such as margin of victory, average speed and total distance (in miles, not kilometers!) are as useful as a baseball boxscore that doesn't show hits and strikeouts. (!)

* ESPN2 found another way to confuse fans with Saturday night's IndyCar opener. The bought-and-paid-for official name of the event was the "XM Satellite Radio Indy 300" but, apparently since XM didn't buy enough commercial spots on the telecast, the network bannered the race as the "Ethanol IndyCar 300." The alternative fuel's trade group did purchase plenty of ad time. Two different names for the same race . . . as if the IRL doesn't have enough problems connecting with the public. (!)

*
If ever a race cried out for a NASCAResque "debris" yellow, it was last Saturday night's IndyCar blowout at Homestead. Why wasn't there one? My theory: A rain delay had already pushed the telecast beyond its scheduled conclusion on ESPN2. Remember, as recently as last weekend, Tony George has admitted in published interviews that his TV "partner" is "driving" (Tony's word) certain League decisions.

* I tell you what, I don't get what ESPN is trying to do with its Busch Series telecasts. Much of the commentary at (and publicity for) Bristol was about the Car of Tomorrow . . . which, of course, had absolutely NOTHING to do with Busch cars. (!) Meanwhile, it's obvious the network has decided to give Juan Pablo Montoya the "Danica treatment" and that Jamie Little has been chosen to play Matt Yocum to Montoya's Tony Stewart, which was a copy of Amahad Rashad and Michael Jordan. Finally, trying-too-hard Rusty Wallace bruised his own credibility by hyping up the finish and wondering if Matt Kenseth would put the bumper to Carl Edwards. Rusty -- and everyone else who knows anything about NASCAR -- knew that was not going to happen, because Matt (usually) isn't that kind of driver (Sunday's incident with Dale Jarrett aside), plus he and Carl are Roush Fenway Ford teammates. (!)

* No comment is needed for this one . . . Brent Musburger opened Saturday's Busch Series telecast thusly: "You are looking live at famed Bristol Motor Speedway -- NASCAR’s Roman Coliseum where the strong survive and the weak are fed to the lions."

* Almost every driver I heard interviewed, including Bristol winner Kyle Busch in his less-than-gentlemanly victory lane remarks, said the Car of Tomorrow doesn't drive as well as the conventional Cup car. Yet, after touring around Bristol in a Roush CoT for Fox's pre-race show, Darrell Waltrip praised NASCAR for how good the CoT handled. Might be that difference of opinion was due to what my tennis friends call "pace." Unless the networks inform the viewers how the lap times from DW, Wally Dallenbach Jr., etc., compare with the fastest, slowest or even field average, we should regard such segments as nothing more than another showbiz stunt -- and consider the information offered in that context.

* All the yap about the CoT was amusing, but someone should have mentioned that those in the know know no legitimate evaluation of the winged machine can be made based on Bristol or Martinsville. The CoT's first true test will be April 21 in the Subway 500k at Phoenix, where aero will come into play.

* Valvoline communications director Barry Bronson has been invited to be a guest speaker at next month's Campus '07 Sports Business conference in London. Title: "Activating sponsorship to achieve strategic business objectives at national and global levels."

* Eric Mauk is leaving Champ Car's PR department for Rahal Letterman Racing.

* Danica Patrick qualified 14th (started 13th after penalty to Scott Sharp) and finished 14th in a 20-car field in her debut for Andretti Green last Saturday night at Homestead. She was penalized for hitting another team's tire on pit road then crashed herself-out while entering pit road. Showing AGR's high-horsepower PR staff has no more control over her than Rahal Letterman's did, Danica did a semi-repeat of last season's hissy fit at Michigan, storming off to the transporter with her helmet on and refusing interviews with ESPN2 and the IndyCar Radio Network.

(Friendly suggestion for Terry Angstadt, announced as president of the IRL's new commercial division: Tell Brian Barnhart, still in charge of competition, to mandate by rule that all drivers cooperate with interview requests from your broadcast "partners." Oh, and just so everyone knows, Angstadt was quoted as saying: "I think we are really positioned for explosive growth.")

That wasn't the worst part of Danica's week. New primary sponsor Motorola Inc. reported that profit and sales will be "substantially'' below its forecast this year because of plunging mobile-phone prices, signaling a turnaround may take longer than investors anticipated, according to a Bloomberg News story. The company announced a new president and an acting CFO was named. The CEO was quoted as saying Motorola will "overhaul its marketing." A Prudential Equity Group analyst said, "The company has confirmed the worst fears, and the numbers are even weaker than anyone expected.'' I heard another analyst say on CNBC the Motorola news was a "train wreck."

Never mind Marco Andretti's last-place finish: Andretti Green management must have gotten real heartburn when two other sponsors found trouble. Vonage lost a patent infringement case that one analyst on CNBC said, in a worst-case scenario, could put it out of business. A federal judge ordered a permanent injunction against Vonage for its use of rival Verizon Communication's patents. The injunction won't be entered for two weeks as the judge considers Vonage's request for an extended stay. A jury awarded Verizon $58 million plus 5.5 percent of Vonage's revenue garnered from continued infringement of the patents, but the judge ruled that the permanent injunction was warranted. According to the Associated Press, Vonage has spent $425 million in advertising. Also, Bloomberg reported ACC Capital Holdings, parent company of sub-prime and non-prime lenders Argent Mortgage and Ameriquest Mortgage, fired an unspecified number of workers "to save money in a contracting market for home loans to people with bad or incomplete credit." AGR displays Argent ID while Ameriquest requested Roush Fenway to sell off the final two years of its contract and will be out of NASCAR after this season.

* There's another passing to note in what has been a very difficult time for the motorsports and automotive communities. Robert E. Petersen, founder of Hot Rod Magazine and Motor Trend as he created America's largest special-interest publishing company, died at age 80 Friday in Santa Monica, Calif. The Petersen Automotive Museum, in Los Angeles, opened in 1994 because of his $30 million endowment and continues to host thousands of visitors a year.
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Last week I wrote about Jack Duffy, the longtime PR VP of Hurst Performance, who died recently at age 82. Jack was a friend and a great professional and it's useful for me to share a few more thoughts.

Jack was what today's version of "PR" people would probably deride as "old school." He believed in developing one-on-one relationships. When I was hired at the Philadelphia Daily News, Jack was quick to invite me to a celebratory lunch. Ditto when I was promoted to assistant sports editor. He often hosted receptions for Hurst customers and guests during Pocono Raceway event weekends. Not only would he personally invite me and other journalists by asking us to "please" stop by, Jack would greet you upon arrival with a handshake and "thank you for coming." Hurst used to have a room across from the old Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center and Jack said we should consider it "home" -- and he meant it. Jack knew it was an essential part of his job to carefully monitor news reports -- actually, he enjoyed doing it -- and every so often I'd get a handwritten note in the mail (remember, this was the 1970s) from Jack saying, "Great column on A.J.!" or "Enjoyed your story on Richard Petty's win at Dover!" I remember the first time I wrote about NHRA, on a driver who had no particular association with Hurst, Jack called me and said, "Thanks for giving drag racing some publicity. We appreciate it!"

If that is "old school," may those lessons be taught forever.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]