• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

WRONG TURNS IN REPORTING JUNIOR'S STORY

It was a relaxed, businesslike -- and happy -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. who sat in front of a throng of reporters last Wednesday to proclaim he'll be driving for Hendrick Motorsports for the next five years. To me, Junior's appearance was in stark contrast to his May 10 announcement that he'd be leaving DEI, when he looked tired, scruffy, and sad.

Dale Jr. said Rick Hendrick, his new boss sitting next to him, promised America's most popular driver he wouldn't have to change much but maybe "not wear jeans and T-shirts as often."

I don't believe Little E will lose one fan by adopting a little more of a professional approach.

Something we've learned -- again -- from the Junior story is how little journos understand about the Business of Racing. Which means they report it poorly. Here's a general recap of how the "E" saga unfolded across the media universe:

* Conventional media "wisdom" was Dale Jr. would NEVER leave DEI, the team founded by his late father.

* If he did leave DEI, it would be to drive a black No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress.

* When Earnhardt Jr. turned NASCAR Nation on its head by announcing he'd depart DEI, the consensus "expert" line was: He'll have his pick of any car in the garage. Meaning, I guess, Hendrick would bump Jeff Gordon out of the No. 24 or Joe Gibbs would knock Tony Stewart from the No. 20.

* Within hours, two TV stations reported Dale Jr. had already signed with Childress, and would drive either the 3 or 33.

* Darren Rovell, a former ESPN business reporter now with CNBC, said Budweiser would automatically go with the sport's most popular driver and added: "We've never seen this before." I guess Mr. Rovell's NASCAR knowledge is so limited he doesn't realize NAPA left DEI to go with Michael Waltrip and UPS followed Dale Jarrett from Robert Yates to Waltrip's Toyota team.

* Terry Blount, on ESPN.com, wrote: "Budweiser is going where Earnhardt goes, unless Bud execs want to give up the best marketing tool in company history." And Blount ruled out Junior-to-Roger Penske on the basis of Penske's long-standing Miller sponsorship. "The Miller folks aren't going to agree to team up with their biggest corporate rival." Wow . . . now there's powerful insight. That kind of biz understanding belongs in the Wall Street Journal.

* Jeff Hammond, on Fox at Dover, had the "exclusive" that Little E was "very, very close" to signing with Gibbs and VISA within 10-14 days.

As I've said for years: You can't understand racing without understanding the Business of Racing. Way too many reporters don't . . . and don't. They either need to learn . . . or ask those who know.
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Speaking of business, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's management spent the weekend trying to do a new U.S. Grand Prix deal with Bernie Ecclestone, using private meetings between Bernie and Tony George and a news statement that seemed to draw a line in the sand. I'll say this: I've NEVER known Ecclestone to come up short on a contract based on someone else's pre-emptive press release.

It began with F1 supremo Ecclestone being quoted in Britain's Daily Express as saying: "It is not vital to Formula One to be in the United States. There are bigger markets for us to be in other parts of the world. We could be in India soon instead of the United States. We don’t have a lot of sponsors from the U.S., no American teams and only one driver." Saturday, IMS blasted out some comments from track president Joie Chitwood, the text starting with a smiley face saying "both parties are working toward an agreement for 2008 and beyond." There was emphasis that "we (IMS) want to continue the event." A few sentences later, however, Chitwood established a negotiating deadline: We expect to make an announcement no later than July 12. “If we are going to have a USGP in 2008, we know that we need to make the announcement and start working on the event by the second week of July.” Ecclestone, who doesn't fancy being painted into any corner, then told Reuters: "They (IMS) haven't done anything to really get behind it (Grand Prix) have they? We arrive in town, what do we get? We get banners saying the Indy 500. Not really the way to promote Formula One. They haven't got behind it, full stop."

Note to Bob Varsha and other wishful thinkers: In Bernie's world, F1 DOES NOT need the U.S. (or any other venue), UNLESS the deal is more favorable to Ecclestone than it is to the promoter. Period. This is a historical fact. I hope the race continues, but a press release, and cheering from the broadcast booth won't make it happen.

Lewis Hamilton, Grand Prix's Man of the Moment, got some well-deserved coverage in Sports Illustrated last week. However, as I explained a couple of blogs ago, the magazine's standards sure have changed in the 35-plus years I've subscribed. Content-wise, the story was nothing more than a space-filler. One can quickly and easily think of appropriate ways the rookie world championship leader could be introduced to readers. SI editors chose a seductive 'Better Than Sex' headline, and the 20-something graph article made sure to include three references to sex. Hamilton, the sport -- and readers -- deserved better.
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From a crisis management standpoint, there was plenty not to appreciate after last weekend's tragic drag car crash during a charity exhibition in Selmer, Tenn., which reportedly resulted in six spectator fatalities with more than a dozen others injured. The "team response" press release cited "road conditions" as the cause. Graph two went like this: "The driver, a veteran of more than 20 years in drag racing, was taken to the emergency room." Now, I acknowledge, there may have been legitimate legal and privacy reasons for not identifying the driver. (USA Today ID'd him Monday as Troy Critchley.) If so, that should have been clearly explained in the release. If not, it creates the impression of purposely working to avoid revealing basic facts -- the "veteran" driver's racing resume should have been detailed. Worse, though, was this posting on the home page of Miami-area radio powerhouse WIOD. To use a photograph of a John Force car on a story of this sad nature, when the Force team (and sponsors!) had no involvement (the accident involved a Pro Mod, not a Funny Car), is completely unacceptable from a journalistic standpoint. It is shameful and should be condemned -- and just was. This is yet another example of the lazy, "do what's easy" approach too often found in today's standards-aren't-what-they-used-to-be media . . . and not just the "new media," either.

I alerted Dave Densmore, long-time Force sponsor PR rep. Dave quickly wrote WIOD's program director, Ken Charles, and properly noted: "Linking John Force Racing and our sponsors to such an incident is worse than regrettable; it could be actionable. As a result, I would ask that if the station has not already done so, that it immediately remove the image of John Force's Castrol GTX race car from the site. The car involved in the Tennessee accident WAS NOT this type of car and, even by association, to suggest that a team of this caliber would consider putting an actual RACE CAR on public roads is incredibly naive and reckless." This drew a fast response from Andy Friedman, VP-news content, Clear Channel Online Music & Radio: "As soon as we were notified about the use of the picture in the news story that showed the John Force car, we removed it. We sincerely regret the error and will make sure it never happens again."

Well done, Dave, and an object lesson for PR people everywhere. It was the right response from a veteran PR operative. And, a page right out of my personal favorite PR book, Good-bye to the Low Profile: The Art of Creative Confrontation by Herb Schmertz with William Novak. It was published by Little, Brown all the way back in 1986. Schmertz was Mobil's VP-Public Affairs and one the most visible and effective corporate PR men ever. I still keep his book handy, on my desk, and have re-read it several times over the years.
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There's nothing quite like an inter-media squabble. We were treated to a good one last week, thanks to a bitter Dan Rather. The former CBS Evening News anchor, forced out after a discredited report about President Bush just before the 2004 election, spoke of successor and ratings-challenged Katie Couric. During an MSNBC interview, Rather called Couric a "nice person," then added: "The mistake was to try to bring the 'Today' show ethos to the 'Evening News,' and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience." (Emphasis mine.)

CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves responded by terming Rather's remarks "sexist." Couric's executive producer, Rick Kaplan, also got into the act. He cited Rather's infamous "Memogate" scandal that eventually led to his departure from the network. "We had to build back from when Dan left," Kaplan said, and noted the work of CBS' female reporters Lara Logan and Kimberly Dozier (who was seriously injured in Iraq). Kaplan also said Rather "is someone who should go through his life quietly." Rather, in turn, responded in an ultra-defensive manner that I've found to be typical when criticism is turned on journos -- especially famous ones.
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Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair
said "it needed to be said -- so I said it."

In a tough assessment of the media, Blair last week called out the Fleet Streeters for acting like "feral beasts," with reduced standards and an emphasis on promoting sales. "In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no one dares miss out." During his decade-long tenure, Blair admitted, his own plans to bypass the traditional outlets via news conferences and websites had been "to no avail." He said the difference between comment and actual news stories is now so blurred that politicians must respond immediately to counter false reports before they are perceived as fact. "News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light. Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial . . . Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else."

Blair, who is leaving office at the end of this month, said the potential damage "saps the country's confidence and self-belief. It undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future."

Blair admitted he was describing "something few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: A vast aspect of our jobs today -- outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else -- is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms." (Emphasis mine.)

For those who need reminding, the PM is a Labour (not Conservative) Party member, often called the "Bill Clinton of Europe."

Agree or disagree, Blair's words are worth a long and considerate think . . . by executives, PR people . . . AND journalists.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]