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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

2013

It seemed like such an easy question.

Who would be driving the No. 47 at Phoenix International Raceway? Bobby Labonte or A.J. Allmendinger?

That was the simple E-mail I sent the team's media representative in preparation for November's Chase semifinal. Routine, I thought. I guess it wasn't. 

I never received a response.

And, then, there was this one. I outreached in September for a telephone interview with young Nationwide series driver Alex Bowman. He's from Tucson and as my story would be in the state's largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, it seemed logical this would be most useful publicity and recognition. Maybe it would even be appreciated. But Bowman's Knill-and-Void "publicist" went silent, the interview never happened, the story wasn't published, and it was one less bit of pre-race publicity for the November event at PIR.

Those examples, in so many ways, sum up The Year in PR and Media. 

There's plenty of blame to go around. And lots to be concerned about going forward.

I fundamentally disagree with NASCAR's Integrated Marketing and Communications approach where, the impression I'm left with, is counting Tweets and understanding what's Trending is what it's all about. While the responsible executives are congratulating themselves on this bit of techno wizardary -- which I'd be cautious about since this is just another type of data mining and that has become so controversial in our country -- the essential humanity of dealing with real-life flesh-and-blood journalists continues to slip away from what Bill France Sr. and Jr. and Jim Hunter knew was vital. (I'm still waiting for a second word of communications from the Chief Communications Officer.) High tech has, too often, come at the expense of conversation. The basics of blocking-and-tackling have been shoved into a secondary role and my sense is that, despite expressions of concern from within the media centers, the decision-makers either don't get that or are OK with it.

This isn't just a problem limited to the NASCAR garage area. It exists in IndyCar, sports car racing, hell, even the NHRA people who usually go the extra mile dropped off this past season. No one is ever going to convince me NHRA, John Force Racing and ESPN maxed-out the opportunity of Courtney Force's magazine cover -- quite possibly a once-in-a-decade chance to get the straight-line sport noticed by the mainstream media. (For my list of the year's Top 10 stories in the Business and Politics of NHRA, see my new CompetitionPlus.com column:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/27184-michael-knight-looking-back-on-a-year-of-mixed-results .

And isn't it quite stunning that one of the worst non-communicators, non-relationship builders, is housed at none other that Penske Racing? I know damn right well that one way Roger Penske built his business empire was by pro-actively going after customers. That's what journalists are to publicists -- customers -- and the Penske bunch doesn't even bother to walk the few feet from the garage to the press room  to visit with current customers or attempt to make new ones. I write for the hometown newspaper of a team sponsor, Discount Tire, which one might logically think would matter . . . 

For the record: I started covering Penske in the 1970s, when the team was based outside Philadelphia, when I was at the Philadelphia Daily News and writing full-page stories about Penske, his Indy 500 wins, and even attended/covered Mark Donohue's funeral. One might logically think that also would matter . . . 

For shame.

You'll understand why it truly came as no surprise to me (as I wrote last November on AzCentral.com) that Brad Keselowski's season as Sprint (another company that doesn't do it's homework with the media -- but looks fabulous compared to Izod and Coca-Cola's NHRA entitlement) Cup champion was a benchmark of unsuccessfulness off-the-track, controversy replacing the great hope that a social-media savvy champion of a new generation would advance the stock car sport's popularity. Now, if Brad K (and Helio Castroneves and Will Power and Joey Logano [PR old-timer Tom Roberts wasn't rewewed] and the others) had had the RIGHT people around them . . . 

When that mindset comes from the top, well, no wonder the front-line soldiers that are the team and sponsor PR people act as described at the start here. Let me be clear: There are still some good people out there, either doing it the old-fashioned way of one-on-one relationship building because that's what they know, that's what they grew up with, or that's what they've been taught (or bothered to learn), but their numbers continue to shrink. I see it on many fronts, including the nominating and voting for the Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports PR. Which was won this year by old-school Anne Fornoro of A.J. Foyt Racing. Not surprisingly, she was one of the precious few team PR people I saw in the media center Indianapolis 500 race weekend. I say again: I blame the sponsor managers who pay little attention for much of this mess. And others who are supposed to be providing "supervision."

Of course, everyone looks good compared to Jay Carney, who has lost all credibility, and is a classic example of someone being in over his head. It shows every day.


And there was plenty to be unhappy about on the media front. 

It started with the relaunch of NASCAR.com. The only website more difficult to navigate was HealthCare.gov. At Daytona 500 media day, the first 18 -- EIGHTEEN! -- questions asked Danica Patrick were about her dating relationship with double NASCAR Nationwide series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The first 21 -- TWENTY ONE! -- questions to Stenhouse dealt with Danica. The first question to Keselowski was, well, you guessed it. Questions 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 to Jimmie Johnson? I don’t have to tell you.

“God.  We're at Daytona and this is the stuff we're talking about at Daytona,” said Tony Stewart. “Amazing.” He was absolutely right.

Then Danica, to her and her team's credit, took the Daytona pole. Meanwhile, Courtney Force was largely ignored as winner of the season's first Funny Car race in Pomona. As John Force said to me at the Arizona Nationals, which I'll put up as Sports Quote of the Year: "I get that Danica got the pole is a big deal, but it is not like she delivered the baby Jesus." 

Danica-Ricky, Dale Jr.'s potato chips, that's what way-too-many media types considered important "news." Not just the in-the-field reporters, but their editors, too. 

Speed signed-off and became Fox Sports 1. See ya, Wind Tunnel, which had been mailing-it-in for over a year. FS1 still insulted us with Rutledge Wood and absolutely should have suspended Michael Waltrip for the rest of the season following the Richmond cheating scandal. FS1 also ignored journalistic standards by allowing Waltrip to make excuses on two of its shows while being "interviewed" by co-workers. Kyle Petty was bread-and-butter controversial -- sometimes, a little too much so. ESPN2 was so concerned about FS1 it gave new life to The Mad Hater. NBCSN took over the Formula One races with live over-the-air coverage of Monaco and Austin (with announcers actually there), which was most welcome. What was not was buffoon Will Buxton, actually allowed to join in a couple of IndyCar telecasts. The "red pants/yellow hat" act of Buxton and Marty Snyder on the Indy 500's non-bump day Bump Day show was the year's TV low point. Maybe the decade's. 

Sports Illustrated printed, inaccurately, that Roger Penske was at Indy 500 Pole Day, and as far as I know, never corrected it. The reporter didn't report, the fact checkers didn't check, the editors didn't edit and the managing editor didn't stand up and do the right thing. SportsCenter, with Hannah Storm at the helm, showbized-up the Sept. 10 a.m. show with 53 stories in one hour to match the number of plays the Philadelphia Eagles' ran in the first half the night before. The legitimacy of news was placed second to a stupid gimmick.

The overall media landscape continued to change. I kept reading and hearing from the "experts" that "original content" was what was needed to drive traffic to websites. At the same time, too often I heard that there wasn't "budget" for such original content. Which is it? What you'll hear about more and more, perhaps due to those budget issues, is "branded content." Reader be alerted to know the difference.

On the mainstream media front, it was very instructional that new NBC networks owner Comcast made no serious attempt to re-sign its 20-year CNBC business brand name Maria Bartimoro, who found her money elsewhere at Fox Business Channel. Let that be noticed by agents looking to sign their talent for the upcoming NBC/NBCSN NASCAR package. Matt Lauer was finally unmasked as the outright phony he is; his public approval numbers rank with the average congressman. The media in general -- CNN in particular -- made massive and unacceptable "reporting" mistakes on the Boston Marathon bombing story. There was much hand-wringing about the use of sources, but nothing (of course) really changed going forward. MSNBC was just plain vile. That is, when it wasn't cheerleading for the president.

I can only wonder how little self-esteem -- or desperation for a paycheck -- must be involved for Jesse Watters to go on The O'Reilly Factor each week and ask people, "What do you think of Bill O'Reilly?"

The build-up and launch of Katie Couric as anchor of the CBS Evening News was a big case study in the early days of this blog. She failed terribly and Rush Limbaugh was not far off when he said near the close of her five-year tenure that Couric had "destroyed" CBS News. It tells you everything that Couric's CBS time is best remembered for her agenda-driven interview of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. (Which the media handlers the McCain campaign assigned to Palin should have known to skip.) If only the news had been as important to Couric as People magazine and telling David Letterman that Michael Jackson had wanted to date her. (The executive suits who engineered this $15 million-a-year-for-five-years Hindenburg were either slow to be or not fully held accountable by CBS owners.) When Couric shifted to her own daytime talker, I predicted here that show would unperform ratings expectations. Now Katie is on the verge of cancellation and Couric's on her way to Yahoo! as a trophy celebrity presenter. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.   

Elsewhere, the motorsports industry was the loser as John Daly decided not to update his must-read The Daly Planet. Disappointing. Sad.

There was some good news at year's end: Paul Page is returning as chief announcer for the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Radio Network. Smart guy Jeff Burton will be a key player when NBC/NBCSN takes over NASCAR from ESPN after next season.

Does that mean there's hope for brighter days and higher standards in 2014? 

Well, I guess we can hope . . . 

[ Thanks to all who use some of their valuable time to visit here each week. I am very grateful. Please come back around mid-January. Meantime, I'll have updates on Twitter @SpinDoctor500 . . . ]