• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

TAKING A STAND

This page, from the April 24, 1989 Sports Illustrated, is displayed in my office. In a gold frame. It was a gift.

Events at the recent IndyCar-ALMS weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course caused me to remember. First, there was the now infamous YouTube video of the Danica Patrick-Milka Duno pitside spat. In the ALMS race, the team Chevrolet Corvettes (which have no competition in the GT1 class) were penalized because their drivers banged into each other and ran a red flag exiting the pits.

These incidents caused much delight among the media, which was as predictable as the media swoon over Barack Obama's performance on his international campaign tour. Perhaps the best example that the overwhelming majority of sports reporters don't know anything about business -- and don't seem to want to learn -- is the frequently repeated canard that "any publicity is good publicity."

Ridiculous. Do you think NHRA has "enjoyed" many of the recent and critical safety-related stories? We know Home Depot management didn't appreciate some of Tony Stewart's out-of-the-car antics in years past. If anyone wants to trouble themselves to look beyond sports, I suggest asking former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer if the tidal wave of headlines that forced him from office was "good." Negative news regarding Martha Stewart cost her hundreds-of-millions of dollars and the leadership of her own company. Did she think all that publicity was "good?"

Here's the reality: The media loves confrontation, at least in part, because it's an EASY story. It's like sitting ring-side at a boxing match -- just provide the audience a blow-by-blow account. Not much in-depth thinking or shoe-leather reporting -- work -- required. This kind of nonsense represents cheap entertainment and the fact that it plays to baser instincts and lowers acceptable standards in our society, well, that's apparently not of concern. Think about it: What is glorified more in the modern press -- achievement or conflict? (Quick quiz: Who were the actual race WINNERS at Mid-Ohio?)

I like and respect Jim Pedley, who does some excellent work in the Kansas City Star. But I respectfully disagree with Jim. He fell into this old trap and wrote last week that the Patrick-Duno dustup was "PR gold" for the IRL. Then, in a column distributed by the ALMS, David Phillips repeated the Robin Miller line that "hate is good." Phillips continued, "If that's the case, Mid-Ohio was a home run for the American Le Mans Series in general and Corvette Racing in particular."

Which brings me back to that framed SI page.

Some of you may recall the '89 Long Beach Grand Prix. Al Unser Jr. punted Mario Andretti out of the lead in the closing laps. An angry Andretti climbed from his car and stepped toward Unser Jr. in victory lane. As assorted photographers and crew members crowded around, Shelley Unser saw what was happening, and reached to warn Al as he was being interviewed by Jack Arute on ABC.

As the Newman/Haas team's PR director -- with the full meaning of the words "public relations" at the front of my mind, especially as it related to the image of the team's sponsors -- I placed myself directly in Mario's path. Billy Kamphausen and Bill Luchow, two of CART's best-ever officials (who should be employed by the IRL), also closed-in to cut-off Mario. Yes, that's me, at the far left of the right-side in this split photo. I got spun-around in the crowd but stood my ground as best as I could, arms extended backward in a restraining posture. Mario had every right to be furious. What Al Jr. did needed to be addressed -- but by CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach, out of public view. And, after a bit of yelling, that's exactly what happened.

A few days after the magazine was published, I received an unexpected package. It was the page, in the gold frame, with a letter from a senior Kmart executive. While the exec expressed great respect for Mario, the letter said, "We are grateful to you" for helping to "maintain Kmart's image and customer friendly reputation."

Meanwhile, the day after last week's unusual WNBA melee, I was glad to hear Dan Patrick's reaction. Dan said this on his national radio show: "I'm not accepting that any publicity is good publicity."

At least somebody gets it.
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Here's what SHOULD have the attention of ALMS' management:

My friend Dave Wilson, the "King" of Indianapolis radio, told me that he tried to interview Gil de Ferran and Scott Sharp at Mid-Ohio for the IMS Radio Network.

Dave said he "received no cooperation from their ALMS teams. Team members wouldn't even direct me to the PR people or tell me when or how to get hold of them. Numerous visits to the trailers brought no more information or drivers . . . It felt like they were being protective of the driver. As if because I wasn't with the ALMS radio network, it wasn't worth the time to talk to me."

If the ALMS can't fix this problem, its alternative fuels initiative certainly won't gain much public traction. And it IS a problem. A winning team owner in the series was quoted thusly to me two years ago when the subject of professional and pro-active PR representation was raised: "I don't care about being in USA Today."
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Here's a link to last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook, featuring Michael McDowell . . . plus Jack Roush answers one of racing's oldest questions: Is it the driver or the car?
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/07/24/20080724racingnb.html


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