• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

ASSIGNING THE BLAME

Earlier this season, I attended a pre-race media luncheon, and was invited to sit at a table with representatives of the event sponsor. This was a company with local HQ, and among those at the table were the sponsor's driver, his PR guy, and the man in charge of the sponsorship.

Given my interest in the Business of Racing, I was glad to meet the sponsor manager. We had not met or spoken previously. The first thing I realized was this person didn't read his local paper: He didn't know I had been writing the Arizona Republic's Friday motorsports notebook for months. As soon as I explained that, he made it clear I should be writing about his company's fantasy racing game. Even two or three readings of the notebook would have informed him fantasy "news" wasn't appropriate for this format. (The PR guy, who I knew slightly, told some funny stories, but that was about it.)

This is a real-life example of what I have said for many months: Majority blame for the current terrible state of racing PR rests with the sponsorship managers -- and team owners -- who don't educate themselves enough to know who is -- and isn't -- doing the job.

Two more illustrations: I have attended Phoenix-area media events this year featuring two Sprint Cup drivers. Both were accompanied by team PR people. Who pretty much sat there. At least in my presence. They didn't introduce themselves. They didn't ask if any background information was needed. They didn't offer a business card with a cell number or E-mail address in case there was a follow-up question or need to check a fact. (In one case, I actually did get a business card, but only after I introduced myself, offered my card, and asked for one in return.)

No, they SAT there.

This is media relations? Where the currency-of-the-trade is accurate information and Job One is developing good, professional, one-on-one relationships with journalists?

They SAT there.

This is considered acceptable "work" for the sponsors and teams?

In my career, I had the good fortune to work with sponsor managers like Ron Winter and Mike Hargrave (Budweiser), Jim Melvin (Beatrice) and Barry Bronson (Valvoline), all of whom were media savvy. They had developed their own relationships with journalists and were on a first-name basis with many of them. They EXPECTED a pro-active publicity program and contributed their time, advice and budget toward achieving media RESULTS.

Hint: That went a long way toward documenting an ROI on the sponsorship.

Ron, Mike, Jim and Barry would no more have put up with a PR person who SAT there, who didn't make regular visits to the press center, who didn't make a big effort at media relationship-building, who didn't WORK the program, than Tiger Woods would with an orthopedic surgeon who whistled Que Sera, Sera.

It's terrible enough the sponsor managers -- charged with the responsibility to extract maximum benefits from the program -- and team owners -- who have turned internal PR units into nothing more than profit centers -- aren't paying attention to their own PR the way they do crew chief performance.

But the logical follow-up questions are:

Who is supervising the supervisors? Who will stand-up to the owners and speak truth-to-power?

Hint: They want your money. Demand your money's worth.

That is, if you even know what it is you should be getting. If not, try asking Ron, Mike, Jim or Barry.
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The significance of Brian France's keynote speech at last week's Associated Press Sports Editor national convention shouldn't be overlooked. The NASCAR chairman appeared at the prestigious gathering 10 years after his late father, Bill Jr., addressed the same organization.

At a time-of-struggle for print media outlets, France encouraged continued -- even increased -- coverage among AP-member newspapers.

"We feel like our popularity distinguishes us from many other sports," France said. "But we also want to distinguish ourselves in another way, by striving to make NASCAR easier to cover. We think all sports should be easy to cover. We also think we're different from other sports because of the amount of assistance we want to provide the media. I can guarantee that we have a more media-friendly approach than you might find with other sports . . . The media, after all, is the direct connection to the fans. And believe me, we definitely understand how important our fans are to what we do."

Here's the brief video NASCAR used along with France's remarks:
http://www.youtube.com/v/7srfrBRd3zg
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There was a bad perception problem with Steve Letarte working on ESPN's coverage of last Saturday's Nationwide Series race at New Hampshire. Letarte was in the Tech Center subbing for Tim Brewer, who had the weekend off. With Jeff Gordon winless -- and often struggling -- in the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, it sure seemed like a bad time for his crew chief to moonlight.
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Will the ALMS name Al Gore as its National Commissioner? Or Grand Marshal-for-Life? Here are three paragraphs extracted from last week's "Green Challenge" news release. (I predict this formula, like NASCAR's driver "rating," will be too complex for the average fan to understand -- thus, care about.) In my view, the first graph is as much scare tactic as an exercise in political correctness. And, frankly, the Scott Atherton quote (third graph below) is over-the-top for a series all but a fractional percentage of Americans have never even heard of -- helping to save the Earth? I realize the world energy/economic situation will cause the motorsports industry to change. "Green" is part of the ALMS' business plan, and intentions may be good, but please . . .

"It seems only a short time ago that a $60 barrel of oil caused great concern among industry business leaders, politicians and consumers. There are now predictions that $200 a barrel may be likely. Gasoline prices have escalated to all-time highs while automobile sales are decreasing at rates not seen in decades. Combined with higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change becomes increasingly apparent.

"While The American Le Mans Series will not portend to have a solution for the escalating price of crude oil, it will profess to have a solution for helping the auto industry - and ultimately consumers."

"We have always claimed to be the most relevant racing series on the planet," said (ALMS President Scott) Atherton. "Now, we hope to play a role in saving that planet by working with manufacturers on innovative alternative fuel solutions and new technologies. We believe this could be truly paradigm shifting by effectively putting the auto back into auto racing and taking the sport from a form that for some has been primarily entertainment-focused to one that is also relevant and issue-focused. We are working with the car companies on new technology that matters."
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Do you know where your newspaper is edited? Maybe not where you think:
http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D91GQIK80.htm

And more bad news:
http://biz.yahoo.com/ap/080629/newspapers_cutbacks.html?.v=3

Here's a link to last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook, featuring Scott Pruett:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/06/26/20080626racingnb.html


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