• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

NO PR HOME RUN

TWO LEGENDS: Babe Ruth (left) and Jim Chapman, circa mid-1940s. Note that Jim, as always, was dressed like the total professional he was throughout his life. That's another lesson current generation PR people need to learn from Mr. Chapman's great example.

A writer friend called me last Wednesday. It was the morning after Barry Bonds hit number 756 and thus passed Henry Aaron's career home run total. The scribe was looking for some PR perspective on Bonds' tarnished image (I used to be a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America).

My "contribution" (such as it was) to this fellow's research essentially was this: In America, the court of public opinion -- as opposed to a court of law -- renders judgment 24/7/365. Sometimes, as in our legal system, a verdict can be overturned. The modern-day 24-hour news cycle, fueled by a combustible mixture of fact-opinion-rumor on the Internet, cable TV and talk radio, makes it much more difficult to change the public mindset than it was a decade ago. In the Case of Barry Bonds, the preponderance of evidence (set forth in the book Game of Shadows) has led -- fairly or unfairly -- to a majority verdict of guilty.

Those who know me, or read this cyberoffering, will not be surprised that all of the Bonds' reportage/punditry made me think of my great friend Jim Chapman. Among his many life accomplishments, Jim was Babe Ruth's PR man for a time. As a close friend, Jim was at the Babe's bedside when he died in 1948. As a PR pro, it was Chapman who announced Ruth's death to the press corps waiting in the hospital.

Jim truly loved both journalism and PR. He and I shared countless conversations on both businesses, up to an hour-long visit I made to Chapman's Birmingham, Mich., apartment about 10 weeks before his death in 1996. I remember asking Jim: What's the best way to get a client out of a PR mess? His lengthy answer included examples of how acts of goodwill could be employed to reshape public opinion, but Jim's bottom-line advice went like this: Try to develop an honest relationship with your client so that you can help him/her AVOID such issues BEFORE they happen.

That wisdom brings us to what has occurred in NASCAR in recent weeks. Grand gestures, such as Robby Gordon entering a Cup car for Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen, are nice -- but don't erase the negatives of repeated -- emphasis repeated -- bad behavior. Those multiple incidents create an embedded image in the minds of sponsors, media and fans. And when the legitimacy of the sport is called into question, such Gordon's refusal to obey the black flag at Montreal and Tony Stewart's comments earlier this season about use of the yellow flag, NASCAR should enact long-term penalties -- because everyone in the garage area is damaged. People's livelihoods, literally, are put at risk. Other than raw talent, something else Gordon and Stewart share is the absence of strong, effective, experienced, pro-active PR counsel. (Disclosure: I did Robby's PR at the 2004 Indy 500.)

Let me swing back to the beginning to make one baseball-related point: I've heard several writers say that, despite what people think he did, Bonds will be elected to the Hall of Fame. If so, then I say, put Pete Rose in, too. (I covered part of Rose's historic 44-game hitting streak in 1978.) To the best of my knowledge, since Rose always bet on his team to win, there is no evidence this actually influenced the outcome of a game.
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Jemele Hill, an ESPN.com Page 2 columnist, took off on Danica Patrick last week. Hill's central points were made here a year ago: Only victory will legitimize the hype, and whiny comments/boorish behavior only serve to reinforce certain societal stereotypes.

Hill's line that torqued me off, though, was this: "Give Patrick credit for accomplishing more than any other female driver." Apparently, Hill never heard of -- or bothered to find out about -- Shirley Muldowney, Angelle Sampey, Melanie Troxel, Shelly Anderson, Karen Stoffer or NHRA's other successful women. Shame on the writer. It does, however, once again reinforce the on-going problem drag racing has with too many in the media (including some motorsports journalists): Lack of respect.
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Assigning the label of "must read" has become so over-used as to diminish the compliment. But Gordon Kirby's latest column, The Way It Is/ The sad results of a rare nexus of hubris, provincial thinking and amateurism, truly is a classic example of words which MUST be read by anyone with the slightest interest in the state of Champ Car. Recapping his observations of last weekend's CC/ALMS doubleheader at Road America, Kirby reveals, among other things, "Racer magazine, for example, sells fewer than half the number of copies it sold 10 years ago . . ." I've known and worked with Gordon for more than 25 years and for most of that time he's been the most insightful, and passionate, journalist on the CART/CC scene. I had the pleasure of co-hosting -- all the way back in 1997 -- a dinner in recognition of the 300th such race he covered (VIP guests included Rick Mears, Teddy Mayer and Linda Vaughn), so there's no telling what his total is now. Read this! :
http://www.gordonkirby.com/categories/columns/theway/2007/the_way_it_is_no81.html
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FAST LINES: If you don't know the name Julie Sobieski, you should. According to Sports Business News, she has been promoted from senior director, programming & acquisitions to vice president, programming & acquisitions, in ESPN’s programming department. Sobieski is responsible for the strategic and day-to-day management of business relationships with motorsports properties airing on ESPN and ABC, including NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA, Champ Car and other sanctioning bodies. She conducts and oversees programming acquisition, strategic content planning and scheduling and management of client relationships. She started as an ESPN intern in 1998 . . . Considering the emphasis (and resources) ESPN has put into its revived NASCAR coverage, this was inexcusable: In giving the "keys" to victory before the Busch Series race at Watkins Glen, Andy Petree said, "I don't know how many times" drivers shift per lap. They PAY YOU to know, or FIND OUT that basic information, Andy! (Rusty Wallace said it was 10.) Pretty good line from Dr. Jerry Punch, explaining how teams use a baseball bat to bang-out crushed bodywork, saying crewmen swing not for the "fences but the fenders" . . . Another example why Scott Pruett is popular with sponsors and media: At the Glen, he described the performance of his Busch car thusly, "The Juicy Fruit Dodge is sweet." Now if Pruett could get his Wrigley sponsor people to have the courtesy to respond to messages about AARWBA . . . I would not be the least bit surprised if senior management at NAPA soon conducts a full-scale review of all its motorsports programs. As if the company's linkage to Michael Waltrip's floundering No. 55 hasn't been embarrassing enough, NAPA was the sponsor of the monster truck that veered into a crowd of about 100 last week in DeKalb, Ill. At least nine people were injured. According to AP, "The demonstration was part of a monster truck tour sponsored by NAPA Auto Parts . . . the city had given the local NAPA store permission to close the street for the event . . . Jerry Nix, a spokesman for NAPA's parent company, Genuine Parts Co., said he could not comment on the incident." Here's a no-brainer comment for you: "Our thoughts and prayers are with those injured and their families. NAPA will cooperate fully with local authorities in their investigation" . . . Terrible TV Trend: Saturday's IndyCar race at Kentucky officially was the "Meijer 300," except on ESPN2, which sold enough commercial spots to another company to label it the "Optima Batteries 300." The race promoter owns the rights to sell the official event name. All this does is further confuse a public that already doesn't understand the difference between IndyCars and Champ Cars -- both shown on the ABC/ESPN networks . . . Another irritating trend is use of TV commentary on track PA systems, such as during SPEED's presentation of the Knoxville Nationals. It turns announcers into cheerleaders; very off-putting for the at-home viewer. Speaking to those in the grandstands vs. those in living rooms are two VERY DIFFERENT functions . . . Will the World of Outlaws follow NASCAR's example and take action against Chris Stillwell, Randy Hannagan's crew chief, for on-air profanity? SPEED should insist on it. Ralph Sheehen didn't do anyone a favor by making an excuse for Stillwell . . . Sad this even needs to be said: So-called "news" releases that are full of hype and tripe get deleted faster than that PR guy's driver's pole-winning lap. Save all the flowery prose for sponsors; skip it for journalists. Contemporary rule-of-thumb: Virtually all such offerings come from those with no professional PR or news background and from people who haven't bothered to develop solid one-on-one relationships with reporters. Otherwise, they would know what journos need. Sanctioning groups may have no control over team/sponsor hires, but they sure as hell could organize mandatory seminars to give these front-line publicity soldiers a clue. One might think that would be in their self-interest.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]