• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

1 YEAR ANNIVERSARY

MY CHOICE: For those who have asked, this is my No. 1 all-time favorite PR creation -- Mario (left) and Michael Andretti with a koala in the cockpit of their Kmart Lola before CART's first race in Australia in 1991. Associated Press moved this image, in color, on its worldwide wire. The above was published in the Detroit News -- Kmart's hometown newspaper. How did I make it happen? Read below.



I've been blogging in this spec of cyberspace for one year. As promised in the first post, I've attempted to make it "The Great Adventure" (that's what Paul Newman called Nigel Mansell's foray into American open-wheel racing) for all curious enough to click on and check it out.

And, for me, too.

In my journalism/public relations career, I've had the opportunity to meet and observe and deal with and learn from some very talented PR people. I want to mention a few names: Bill Dredge (Andy Granatelli's right-hand man during STP's glory days), Dave Blackmer (who worked with Granatelli and Dredge), Dan Luginbuhl (one of Roger Penske's key people for decades), Jack Duffy (Linda Vaughn's boss at Hurst), Bill Marvel (Pocono Raceway and USAC), Rod Campbell (long-time guider of Ford's racing PR), Ernie Saxton (man-of-many East Coast clients), Bob Latford (a NASCAR and track and sponsor publicist, stock car historian, and designer of the original Winston Cup points system) and Jim Hunter (NASCAR's VP for corporate communications). Ed Triolo, Trevor Hoskins, Bob Thomas, Mike Rubin, Susan Arnold, Bill York, Joe Whitlock, Dick Stahler, Dick Ralstin, Ray Marquette, Jep Cadou, Bill Hill, Jack Martin, Deke Houlgate, Dick Williford, Jan Shaffer, Alexis Leras, Jim Freeman, Bob Kelly, Bob Moore, Bill Broderick, Bob Russo, Barry Bronson, Bob Carlson, Kevin Kennedy, Earl Fannin, Drew Brown and Dan Layton were among the kind or helpful or had tips or set a good example along the way. (No doubt there were others and I apologize for the oversight.) Of course, the list will forever be topped by my great friend and one of history's greatest professionals and gentlemen, Jim Chapman. (If you haven't done so, it's worth reading my Dec. 12, 2006 blog about Mr. Chapman.)

Ron McQueeney, photography director at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has kindly said to me several times that I should "teach a class" in motorsports PR. I think that's because I've long understood how important the traditional post-Indy 500 qualifying photo session is to sponsors. I tried to work closely with Ron and his staff to "direct" the different photos so the driver and crew were looking the right way and presented a professional appearance. I never considered it part of my job to be IN the photo, but rather, to make sure those who were looked good. I have enjoyed the opportunity, from time-to-time, to speak about the job and my experiences in front of various groups. Always, the best part has been the Q&A, and the one-on-one conversations that follow. That's when I have been able to learn, too.

Other readers have asked that, at least occasionally, I share some of my own stories from the PR front lines. One year seems like a good time to do so.

I passionately believe it's always necessary to do the basics first, and well, before attempting anything fancy. It never would have occurred to Mr. Chapman, or others listed above, not to return a phone call or respond to a written message. Talk about basics . . . these days, far too often, so-called "PR people" don't even have the common courtesy or good business sense to call back or answer an E-mail. How they are deemed qualified to be hired, or retained, tells us a lot about the judgment of those responsible at teams, tracks, sponsors and sanctions.

It was extremely satisfying to me, personally, when Mike Harris of the AP told me a few months ago over dinner he thought I did my best-ever work juggling the demands of the U.S. and international media during "Mansell Mania" in 1993 and 1994. When reigning world champion Mansell came to CART, it was motorsports' first-and-only 24-hour news cycle. Every morning I'd awaken to find faxes from media outlets around the world requesting interviews, quotes, news, photos, video and everything else you can imagine -- and comment about crazy rumors.

But I have always loved the creative side of PR. I've pulled off my share of "stunts" over the years and, occasionally, I'm asked to reveal my favorite. OK. Here it is and the story-behind-the-story:

At an end-of-1990-season meeting with Newman/Haas sponsors (I did the team PR), an issue became obvious to me that eventually would blow-up on CART as it lusted after internationalism. That being companies paying sponsorship with U.S. marketing budgets who didn't care about the series' desire for foreign intrigue. A Kmart senior VP expressed doubt the 1991 season opener, in Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia, would attract much coverage in the American media. Let's just say I got her point.

So, the task at hand was to put something in front of U.S. editors that would interest them in a CART race Down Under. A photo-op with a koala seemed obvious. Except, my twist was, I wanted to place the koala in the cockpit of a Kmart/Havoline Lola. How to make that happen?

Someone at Kmart knew someone in Brisbane. (I didn't ask the promoter in Surfers because I wanted an exclusive for Newman/Haas, not something available to going-to-Australia-will-be-a-paid-for-vacation PRers at other teams.) That was a start. She located an animal preserve about 30 miles from Surfers. I got to serious talking (faxing) with officials there 60 days before the race. It turned out Australia considered koalas to be "protected" (but not "endangered") and that created room to discuss my desire to bring a koala to the track. The negotiation came down to this: For a $1,000 (U.S.) donation to the preserve, and publicity recognition, the equivalent of a game warden would bring a koala to us for one hour. One condition: No race engines could be running, because that noise likely would frighten the marsupial. It was made clear to me this was a deal-breaker and the warden could withdraw the koala at any time he thought it might be scared.

That meant doing the photo-op on Thursday. Fine, as crews would be setting up, driver interviews were planned in the media center, so plenty of photogs would be on-site. My friend Kirk Russell, then CART's technical director, did me a favor and agreed to tell teams they couldn't warm-up engines for that hour. Upon my arrival in Surfers, however, I encountered an unexpected issue: The park had to get a permission waiver from the government. I did not receive the final "GO!" until 6 p.m. the night before. I told Mario and Michael Andretti what we were going to do and asked them to wear their uniforms. The N/H crew guys loved it and stuffed padding into the cockpit first thing Thursday a.m.

Gathering up photographers for the "photo call" wasn't too difficult, as many newspapers treated the inaugural race as a big deal. But, remember, my priority wasn't coverage in Australia, it was getting news that the Andrettis were racing Down Under back to America. So, before I traveled, I got the name of Associated Press photographer Steve Holland, and contacted him. He wanted an "exclusive" -- and I didn't blame him -- but that wasn't possible as the car would be on pit road and I needed ESPN to record it, too. (I arranged for Steve to have some special access to the team later that weekend.) It quickly became obvious to me Steve was a good guy and would work with me, so I was honest with him. I admitted flat-out what I was trying to make happen: A great photo, capturing the famous Andrettis, our Indy Car, the public's love of animals, and, yes, sponsor ID. I mapped out the logistics with Steve in advance and his shooting location was blocked off.


The warden arrived on time, with Dawn, a 2-year-old female koala. Almost as if on cue, as soon as we gently placed Dawn in the car, she put her paws on the steering wheel (!) then turned toward the group of more than three dozen still and video cameramen. With Mario and Michael looking on, Steve captured the image you see above. Within two hours, it moved in color on AP's worldwide wire.(At least a half-dozen representatives of other teams, who had spent the week on the beach or golf course, came over and asked me if they could "borrow" Dawn for their own photos. (!) You betcha!)


Video of Dawn and the Andrettis aired on SportsCenter and the ESPN race telecast and on stations and in papers across Australia. A service produced clips from around the world. But it was Mission Accomplished when the Detroit News -- Kmart's hometown paper -- published the picture. Somone at Kmart faxed it to my hotel. Later, I received a letter of congratulations from the same Kmart VP who got me plotting this in the first place. Before saying thanks and G'day to Dawn, I held her, and that framed photo is near me now. That was the best $1,000 I ever spent. And my most satisfying bit of Creative PR.
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This seems the right occasion to go on-the-record about a few things I believe deeply:

1. Jim Chapman should be in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame. Mari Hulman George and Tony George know why. Please, make it happen.

2. American's attitudes about their sports and athletes underwent a fundamental change after Sept. 11, 2001. In international competition, we are interested in -- and cheer for -- those who are from the U.S. The TV ratings of international sporting events in the last six years, including the Olympics, proves this to be true. When the Americans don't do well, we don't watch. I keep wondering why management of the Indy Racing League, Champ Car and the domestic sports car series can't figure this out.

3. There is never -- NEVER -- a valid excuse for a telephone call not to be returned or an E-mail not to be answered. Personally, I've had it, especially when I'm attempting to make contact on behalf of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. (AARWBA is the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals.) It's getting very close to the time when names will be named. I'll say this to those who will be embarrassed: Too bad. It's your own fault.

4. Standards across the board -- on TV, radio and the various forms of old-fashioned and new-fangled print journalism -- have declined. If anything, it has dropped even more among so-called "PR people." Also, sponsor "managers," who are employed to look out for the best interests of their company, and yet allow the ID on the driver's uniform they paid for get covered by a towel or wreath and thus aren't exposed on TV and in photos. Well-organized sponsor managers I worked with, such as Jim Melvin and Ron Winter, NEVER would have put up with such theft. (And that's exactly what it is.) I'll resist this trend and speak out against it until I'm gone.


5. It is equally as appropriate to write or call to say "THANK YOU" as it is to complain. I'd say, though, the former happens once or twice for every 98 or 99 of the latter.
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Did Champ Car try a new way to attract TV viewers Sunday? CC's Toronto event on ESPN was up against Formula One's British Grand Prix on Fox. In the opening minutes -- for no reason related to what was happening at Toronto -- CC anchor Rick Benjamin revealed Kimi Raikkonen as winner of the tape-delayed GP, and a results graphic was put on the screen. It was as if to say: Here's who won F1, don't switch channels. Since the series buys the airtime and pays the production company, who made this decision? Champ Car management? The producer? The network? Are they willing to try anything to jump-start those awful .2 ratings? If someone happens to mention this to Bernie Ecclestone, I have a powerful feeling he'll call it dirty pool.
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Californians Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty have won three consecutive Rolex Series sports car events, four this season, and are in the championship hunt. Memo to sponsor Gainsco, team owner Bob Stallings, engine manufacturer Pontiac, and the Grand-Am organization: Potentially, you've got lightning-in-a-bottle, a rare opportunity to go out and grab the attention of the national media with the success of two young Americans -- one the son of a legendary U.S. racer. What are you doing to take advantage of the situation? (I don't mean an extra interview on SPEED.) Please, don't let this chance pass you by . . .




[ NO blog next week . . . please check back here Tuesday, July 24 ]