• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, January 19, 2009

MEMO to NASCAR's PR SUMMITEERS

NASCAR's annual PR Summit for those involved in its national series is this week. I wasn't invited. That doesn't mean, given my almost four decades of experience in the industry, that I don't have suggestions.

Here's a little Straight Talk for the Summiteers, or more importantly, those who employ them: "PR," as pretended upon by the big majority of NASCAR team, sponsor and track representatives, is abysmal.

It's worse than our national economy. Which makes me wonder how team owners, sponsor managers and track presidents justify the salaries -- especially now. My theory remains those in charge aren't paying attention. Shame, since these people are your front-line representatives to the public and the media. Translation: To your CUSTOMERS.

It's no surprise to me, as selection committee chairman, that THREE of the last FOUR Jim Chapman Award winners, for excellence in motorsports PR, have been NHRA team publicists. (It would be worthwhile for everyone at this meeting to take the time to learn about Chapman, a legend in the PR business, not just motorsports. Among many other things, Jim was Babe Ruth's PR man. His life story and example are priceless professional learning tools.)

Yes, there are a few pros, like Jon Edwards and Judy Kouba Dominick and Nancy Wager and Drew Brown and Bill Janitz and a pathetically tiny handful of others. Here's what I've seen as a contributor to the Arizona Republic's (the state's largest newspaper) racing coverage: "PR" people who don't spend meaningful time in the media center, don't bother to introduce themselves to journalists, use NO! as response-by-rote to requests for access to drivers (don't even try to make it happen), seemingly are afraid of their drivers, have almost zero one-on-one relationships with reporters, send out non-news "news" releases (the driver is "excited about" and "looking forward" to this week's race), and, in short, exist only to carry the driver's helmet or walk with him to a hospitality appearance.

When Ryan Newman was testing at Phoenix International Raceway last spring, his person was viewing away on a laptop in the media center, but certainly didn't go to any effort to introduce herself to me or other locals. When I went over and asked a question about the sponsorship ID on his Dodge (and how many would do that?), the demeanor was that I was a bother and had asked a stupid question. (Note: Given business conditions, any opportunity to get your sponsor's name into print in a positive story about the Daytona 500 winner, sure as hell shouldn't be an irritant.) When Carl Edwards came to town for a promotional appearance, I got the first interview. His guy sat on the sofa, not introducing himself to the local reporters, or offering any help with background info. Why bother to even come?

The California Speedway bunch doesn't even bother to reply to E-mails -- at least in my experience. The recent AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, at the Ontario Hilton, was minutes away. IF anyone from the track troubled themselves to show up, I don't know it, because no one said hello to me . . . but, hey, why would they? . . . I was just the ceremony co-chair. (Gillian, please bring back Dennis Bickmeier!)

Last fall, at PIR, I was talking with a publicist and his boss. It was early afternoon. I had told both, in advance, I would have a story quoting the boss in that day's paper. Free copies of the Republic were stacked in the media center. In our conversation, I referenced my story. It was obvious neither had bothered to read it.

All of the above examples fall under the category of PR 101. I agree there's value in guest speakers like former White House press secretary Jody Powell, but this group is in desperate need of a strong reminder about the BASICS. Like relationship building. I have no interest in listening to any complaints about stories from PR people who have made no true effort to establish a professional one-on-one relationship with key journalists.

PR-wise, the stock car community is more challenged than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway trying to sell Allstate 400 tickets after last year's tire debacle. So here's a list of action points for the Summiteers to talk about at a time when delivering sponsors with a documented Return of Investment has NEVER been more urgent or important. Let me phrase that even more clearly: JOB SECURITY.

1. NASCAR would do well to post a daily PR reps sign-in/sign-out sheet in the media center. Officials would be shocked to see how many don't spend meaningful time in their constituents' base of operations.

2. Introduce yourself to the working media. Show the common courtesy to offer a business card with cell phone and E-mail address. Offer updated information. Ask if you can be of any help.

3. Only send out news releases if they actually contain NEWS. It's NOT news that a driver is "looking forward to" or "excited about" a race. It WOULD be news if they weren't! For an example, see my 1989 pre-Michigan 500 release.

4. Try to say "YES!" -- for a change -- when asked to arrange an interview.

5. How many times was Cup qualifying rained out last season? Use that "down" time to do phone interviews with local media in upcoming race cities, including newspapers and radio stations. Honestly, it wouldn't take that much of your effort to create a list of interested journos who could be offered interviews on short notice. Seek help from track publicists. Any of 'em worth anything will jump to your assistance, because, believe me, they've got plenty of tickets to sell.

6. Teach the driver to promote the network telecast during live local radio interviews. Those plugs, and those for sponsors, can't be edited out. In case you haven't noticed (I assure you, the sponsors have), ratings aren't what they used to be.

7. Do not allow your driver to walk around in public with his uniform pulled down. It looks sloppy. It's unprofessional. It presents a disrespectful appearance to the fans. It's costing sponsors big-time exposure value.

8. No hats worn backwards. No towels over shoulders, covering up corporate logos that sponsors have PAID for to gain media exposure.

9. Pay attention to where your driver is interviewed. NOT in front of a hauler or banner with competing sponsor ID. And, NOT in front of a Port-a-John.

10. Give the paying customers what they paid for: It's a disgrace to see drivers with their backs turned to the grandstands during the driver introduction parade laps.
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Congratulations to National Speed Sport News on the start of its 75th publishing anniversary season. I've been getting NSSN every week since 1970 or '71. Corinne Economaki attended the recent AARWBA All-America Team ceremony and explained the paper's plans for this special year during the Shav Glick Newsmakers Forum.
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Here's my January Drag Racing Online "All Business" column (NHRA has subsequently announced a "Fan Relief Program" that includes ticket price reductions):
http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/xi_1-1.html
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God love the people, but shows like ESPN's college football and NHRA preview shows, which are set with noisy fans in the background, are just gimmicks. That's what NBC News and its cable operations are becoming, too, and that should alarm anyone with a legitimate interest in standards of journalistic professionalism. Last Saturday, MSNBC buffoon David Shuster yelled out to the crowd behind him to scream, Yes or No, if there were enough Port-a-Johns in a spectator area for the presidential inauguration. Classy.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]