• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, October 28, 2012

BADPRYEAR

UPDATE: I'll guest on Larry Henry's Pit Pass USA Wednesday, 7 p.m. EDT, to talk about Randy Bernard's ouster and what's next for IndyCar.  http://www.voiceamericasports.com/

I've been around long enough to remember when Goodyear cared about its racing public relations. I knew Dick Ralstin, who was the racing division's PR manager for 11 years, and some seasons worked as many as 40-50 events. Dick was a great person to know at the Indianapolis 500, as Chicago Tribune sportswriter Bob Markus found out when he covered his first Indy in 1968. Markus, a friend of mine and a very gifted writer, admits he didn't know his way around the Speedway and missed Bobby Unser's winner’s interview.  Dick came to the rescue and quickly arranged a one-on-one interview with Unser. Ralstin retired in 1987 and died several years ago.

Over the years, whether in a journalism or PR capacity, I knew and had a good working relationship with other Goodyear racing publicists. They incluced Phil Holmer, Dave Hederich, Bill King and Carole Swartz. Chuck Sinclair, a nice man, worked in corporate PR but wound up spending more time than he probably expected in open-wheel racing when Firestone came in and kicked butt. He's now retired. They all were quite professional to deal with.

I'm not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, Goodyear decided racing media relations wasn't important any more. They've kicked it to the curb like a burned-up chunk of tread.

It's been noticeable for several years. And I noticed it again last week when G conducted a NASCAR tire test at Phoenix International Raceway.

While I did a phone interview with NASCAR competition VP Robin Pemberton, I didn't go to the track. It wasn't worth the hassle. As usual, G put severe media access restrictions on the test and -- candidly -- it wasn't worth my bother. And, as usual these days, there was zero communications from G with the local media.

Last year, when PIR was repaved and reconfigured, I did many stories on the project for the Arizona Republic. During the last race weekend on the old surface, I made it a point to discuss this with G racing boss Stu Grant. I know him from my CART days when G got its doors blown off by Firestone. The G talking point is the teams don't want to be bothered by media during these tests. I agree there's a bit of truth there, but . . .

G acts like a company unsure if it's capable of producing the tires needed for NASCAR competition. G gives the appearance of being scared of failure, not confident of success. Of course, when you take a look at the recent Kansas Speedway race, that just might be understandable. I noted the regular NASCAR media largely gave G a pass on that, but I'm not.

During that conversation with Grant, he mentioned the value to G of "technology transfer" stories (race tire development benefitting passenger vehicle tires). I told him I certainly understood that and would be willing to try to include such a storyline into my overall coverage. I never heard another word from G. In the pre-race tire testing, G made a major change in its plans in terms of the amount of drivers and days involved. When I pointed that out to G's so-called "media relations" man, well, let's just say dealing with him wasn't a happy professional experience. And if I hadn't contacted him, he never would have thought of, or bothered to, be in touch with me. Hey, it was only a GOODYEAR test. Why outreach to the local media?

Modern day NASCAR is a marketing organization. It might as well be renamed MASCAR, if you get my meaning. Since it seems that Firestone won't be involved in IndyCar within the next couple of years, I suggest NASCAR/MASCAR start negotiating with Firestone. The product is superior. As are the advertising, marketing, promotional and PR capabilities.


Anyone/everyone with any interest in, or involvement with, PR of any sort should read this:


FAST LINES: Jon Knapp, who died of cancer last week, was a solid PR pro and will be missed on the NHRA circuit where he and wife-PR partner Joanne repped the Summit Pro Stock team . . . Sadness also over the death of Bob Jenkins' wife, Pam. I know it's been a very difficult time for Bob on a number of fronts . . . And good guy Charlie Mitchell, the longtime racing columnist for Connecticut's The Hour -- a tough week . . . There are stories which fill space and then there are stories that help generate interest in an event and are read by non-racing fans. Please get next Sunday's (Nov. 4) Arizona Republic for what I believe will be a story deserving to go in the second category. If you're not in this area, go to AzCentral.com sports.

[ more next Monday . . . ]


Sunday, October 21, 2012

LESSONS NOT LEARNED

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!: The Red Bull marketers and publicists clearly understood that images of Felex Baumgartner's sensational supersonic jump from 24 miles above the earth were all-important in telling the story -- and capturing the public's attention. Note the cameras atop his capsule. It's a useful lesson for PRers in every corner of the PR world. (Photo courtesy of Jay Nemeth/Red Bull Content Pool.) 

When will they ever learn?

Silly me -- they never will.

I keep hoping the celebrity athletes of our star-power society will wise-up and play it straight given the countless examples of bad behavior and cheating that have been so much a part of our news in recent years. Every time you think there could not be a bigger fall from grace, there is. Last week's was Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France cycling champion-raised to hero status as a cancer survivor.

In the face of recent and what has been called overwhelming evidence of blood doping and other rules violations, Armstrong stepped down as head of his own cancer charity. He was quickly dropped by several sponsors, including Nike. Take your pick -- Nike or ESPN are the most powerful influences in American sports today.

The difference for Nike in this case as best I can tell, as opposed to other superstars like Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick, is Armstrong's offenses involved actual competition while the others were of a personal conduct nature. It's true Armstrong has never failed a drug test.

But his fall from the pointed end of the sports celebrity pyramid is not only the latest, but greatest. I honestly feel sorry for cancer patients, and their families, who drew inspiration and hope from Armstrong's example.

But what I have also been reminded of -- again -- is that money, power, fame, celebrity and ego continue to compromise what in some cases may be the better judgment of decent people. 

Honestly, is it asking too much for others to learn from the mistakes of others?

Someday, Armstrong will re-emerge. You'll know his attempted PR comeback is underway when you see him on 60 Minutes or Katie.


My suspicion antenna is up: Way Up.

Various media ran wild last week with the story that GoDaddy's new ad agency might not use Danica Patrick in the .com's next Super Bowl commercials. Many were the same ones who have gone wild for several years with breathless reports that GD's Super spots were rejected by TV networks as too "racy" -- duped by a sleezy PR tactic to generate false controversy and, thus, drive-up public interest.

Now, anyone who has been through a management change (as GoDaddy has) knows that usually means change for many others. GD's new ownership has been working to reposition the business from sex-appeal to appealing to small business owners and tech buffs. It hired a well-known ad agency to do just that and that agency didn't use Danica in its first batch of new ads, which aired during the Summer Olympics. 

But, given its history of media manipulation, call me a skeptic. What really makes me think so is the Internet domain firm issued a statement from Patrick which quoted her as saying, "I absolutely hope I am in the new GoDaddy Super Bowl commercials. I don't think it would feel quite like a Super Bowl if we don't do the commercials again this year."

There's absolutely no reason for such a canned comment -- other than to again dupe the press into another phony controversy. If the story was real, the most likely response would have been "we'll see." Or even, "no comment."

And then, there was this from Tony Stewart, whose team fields Danica's GD-sponsored Cup Chevrolet, Friday at Kansas Speedway: "We read everything yesterday and laughed about it.”


If the standards of professionalism in American journalism were as high as most in the mainstream media would like you to believe, CNN's Candy Crowley would have been suspended from all political coverage immediately after her horrendous stint as moderator of presidential debate No. 2. Yes, the Washington Times is a conservative newspaper, but it was correct in terming Crowley's performance "another debacle for America’s media."

I'm not sure what was the bigger disgrace: Crowley, or the slobbering praise lavished on her post-debate by her CNN colleagues. Sometimes it seemed like some of them were going to lick her face in admiration. Couldn't one of them -- how about the network's own media analyst? -- step-up and tell the truth? CNN Managing Editor Mark Whitaker even sent an E-mail instructing his staff: "Let's start with a big round of applause for Candy Crowley for a superb job under the most difficult circumstances imaginable."

PLEASE! Tell our military, police and firefighters about "difficult circumstances." Talk about being self-important and self-absorbed!

Before the debate even began, Crowley let it be known she didn't plan to obey the format rules agreed-upon by the Obama and Romney campaigns. That means she shouldn't have accepted the role in the first place. And, while the questions were submitted by supposedly undecided voters in the audience, it was Crowley who actually decided which questions would be asked, and in what order. Somehow -- how mysterious -- she picked several that fed into the liberal Democrats' "war on women" theme and even this one from Mars: "How are you different from George W. Bush?" What in the hell does that have to do with the serious issues at play in this election? Why not have asked: "How are you different from Ulysses S. Grant?" She gave the president more time, cut off Gov. Romney more often, and was factually wrong in backing-up Obama's answer on the deaths of four Americas in Libya.

Candy Crowley is a disgrace to the honorable, traditional standards of American journalism. Her bias and bad judgment means she should not be a part of it. And certainly not be trusted as the "objective" moderator of a presidential debate.


FAST LINES: Two sentences from a recent Reuters article has had the PR-world-at-large talking: “To lie about an issue is to be a politician. To lie about a corporation is to be a public relation[s] executive” . . . I'll call again for the executive bosses at the sanctioning body PR departments to call together all their team reps for a review of the basics. One breach-of-ethics that keeps coming up again and again -- PR people responding to interview requests by asking what the questions will be. That's a mortal sin in the business. Only those who have never taken a Journalism 101 course would do such a thing. On second thought, PR execs from two sanctions have made the same mistake with me in the last year . . . A news release on the DeltaWing's testing crash at Road Atlanta, when it reportedly was hit by a slower car, headlined with the claim the vehicle was "assaulted." This kind of overly dramatic positioning may well be increasingly commonplace these days but it's just plan HYPE and not appreciated by legitimate journalists . . . ALMS has backed-out of its too-far-too-soon ESPN3 package for its final season in 2013, returning to a traditional broadcast/cable mix on ABC, ESPN2 and Speed for the long-distance runs at Sebring and Road Atlanta.


You've probably seen the video of Felix Baumgartner's astounding supersonic skydrive, so far the highlight of the YouTube age. But if you haven't seen it from his helmet camera, well, take a look:
http://gizmodo.com/5951725/first-head-cam-footage-from-daredevils-space-jump

more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, October 14, 2012

HEAD CASE

I'd like to say that Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting out of some Sprint Cup races due to concussion symptoms marks the start of a new and improved era of pro-active driver safety rules in NASCAR.

I'd like to -- but I can't.

As NASCAR racing operations senior VP Steve O'Donnell said after Junior's announcement, tracking concussions is a "subjective call."

As I know from personal experience, that is true. Drs. Steve Olvey and Terry Trammel, the 1-2 Dynamic Duo of the original and gold standard CART traveling medical team, once explained to me that they could look at an X-ray of a broken bone and say how long it would take to heal. As for head injuries, though, they said that's impossible, even looking at an MRI or using other modern diagnosic techniques.

In short, there's no way to know. And that is why head injuries require a higher standard of care and caution than other injuries, because they are more difficult to assess. That means the sanctioning bodies must step-up and take on a greater role. That should begin with a mandatory check for concussion symptoms the day immediately following a suspicious wreck. No checkup, no OK from a qualified doctor, no racing the next weekend. Period.

The hard truth is Junior turned himself in, NASCAR didn't. Dale could have been wheeling his No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevy last Saturday night at Charlotte because there's no evidence NASCAR was set to say otherwise. I'm glad Junior did what he did. I wish that would provide an example for other drivers, but . . .

Junior's position within the sport and industry is unique. He knows he can get out of the car and not have to worry if he'll still have a job. Precious few other drivers are in that position. Most wouldn't take themselves out of the game for fear they'd never get back in. And, as Jeff Gordon himself admitted, if he was leading the Sprint Cup championship with only a couple of races to go, he would play hurt.

Again, I speak from personal experience and direct observation. Head injuries and neuro diseases can't be handled like a broken bone. The gray area is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. That means the sanctioning organizations have to assume a greater burden of the responsibility. Yes, it's a judgment call -- but NASCAR quickly explains away other competition decisions with that same reasoning.

Meanwhile, don't rush back, Junior. Ticket sales and TV ratings aside, there is no need to do so. Your championship possibilities are gone and another win this year isn't worth your hurry. Take the rest of the season off if all available evidence indicates that's the wisest course of action.


Here's my notebook in last Friday's Arizona Republic with news of a new NASCAR Truck series driver and the future of NHRA at Firebird Raceway:
http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/sports/articles/2012/10/11/20121011mexicos-quiroga-driven-realize-nascar-dream.html

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, October 07, 2012

QUESTIONS BEGGING TO BE ASKED

Chris Economaki's death marked the official end of the era of tough questioning on racing TV. Chris was never afraid to put the microphone in front of his interview subject and ask a direct, sometimes blunt, but almost always fair question. He knew that's what his viewers wanted.

These days, the broadcast types make speeches -- which aren't questions -- or generally talk to the interviewee in a soft, overly friendly, non-specific way. Which is largely what happened when IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard talked-up his 2013 schedule on Wind Tunnel and a media teleconference.

Bob Varsha said it was an honor to have Bernard make the announcement on WT. Hey, it's not as if SportsCenter was jumping up-and-down to do it! Sadly, the interview ended with a lame Helio Castroneves-Dancing With the Stars question. I know time is a limiting factor on live TV, but here's my list of very legitimate questions that could have, SHOULD HAVE, been asked on WT and the next day's teleconference:

* Do you have specific knowledge of a proposal to buy the series?

* Why was a contract signed with Pocono without a feasibility test, such as the one insisted on by Phoenix International Raceway if a race were to happen there?

* Phoenix was willing to commit to an almost $1 million advertising/marketing budget. How much has Pocono committed to this? And how much is the sanction fee?

* Are you concerned about Pocono trying to sell tickets to three major events within an eight-week period?

* What is the sanction fee for doubleheader events? Double the single-race fee?

* Why the gaping hole between Baltimore on Sept. 1 and Houston on Oct. 5 and are you concerned that could be a PR momentum roadblock as football begins?

* When will Lotus' status for 2013 be made official?

* After not doing much in 2012, what are series sponsor Izod's specific activation plans for 2013?

* Has the Grand-Am/ALMS merger created interest from tire suppliers involved in those series?

* According to Sports Business Journal, TV ratings on ABC were down 17 percent from the previous year and down 27 percent on NBC Sports Network. Since you've talked a lot about your expectations for those numbers to head north, why the decline in a season which usually featured good racing in new cars with engine manufacturer competition? What, specifically, is this being done to fix this huge problem?

* Does it concern you that even Roger Penske is having trouble finding sponsors? What, specifically, is the series doing to help teams sign new sponsors? Do you expect more, less, or the same amount of cars on the grid next season?

* During the teleconference, you said, "As everyone knows, tradition is so important to the sport." If so, how is tradition honored by having a "Triple Crown" that isn't all 500-mile races? (FYI -- the $1 mil bonus for a driver who could sweep all three isn't anything new. Domino's Pizza offered such a prize in the early 1980s.) And isn't standing starts a slap-in-the-face of IndyCar tradition?

* As for Pocono, you said of the three turns: "The fact that each one of these three corners provides for a different IndyCar track . . . Trenton in the first corner and turn and the second turn Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the third turn at Milwaukee." Respectfully, what do you know about Trenton?

Just asking . . . as others should have done. I bet at least some of the above questions would have been on Chris' list.


NASCAR's Mexico Toyota series will compete outside of that country for the first time next March, at Phoenix International Raceway. Here's my story on that from last Wednesday's Arizona Republic. It was played on sports Page 1.
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/articles/2012/10/02/20121002nascars-mexico-toyota-series-hold-race-phoenix-international-raceway.html

[ more next Monday . . . ]