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Sunday, February 16, 2014

A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

As I've written here before, I fundamentally disagree with the concept, structure and execution of NASCAR's Integrated Marketing Communications Department. As NASCAR enters its most important week of the year, it is worth revisiting this issue.

First, anyone who knows anything about working effectively with the media knows that PR/media relations/communications should not be placed under the thumb of marketing. They are two different -- but co-equal -- functions. I had my first professional byline at age 15 and I've yet to meet a professional journalist who wants to be "sold" to by a marketer. Yes, as someone who spent more than a quarter-century in PR at some of the highest levels of motorsports, I can say it's true that in some ways a good PRer is a "salesman." In fact, I told that to Roger Penske in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area in 1981. You might say it's a selling of ideas and of image. But don't, never ever, make a reporter feel like he/she is being "sold" to.

It would also help if NASCAR IMC would actually take the time to be aware of what local, not just national and not just non-sports, media is writing and saying. When I was out in the field doing PR, I (and others) couldn't wait for the hotel newsstand to open so we could buy the newspapers and see what the coverage was, who wrote what, how stories were played, the headlines and the photos. While it would be nice to think the NASCAR PRers would actually want to grab the paper(s) on the way to the track, if they don't want to be bothered, it's easier than ever just to read the links on Jayski. I can say from personal experience that I have mentioned stories I've written, and I've observed others do the same about their work, and the NASCAR person involved obviously didn't read it and didn't know anything about it.

For NASCAR to come into a market and not bother to follow the coverage? Inexcusable.

When I was CART's communications director, I would invite media to our championship awards banquet. I placed media tables near the front of the room. NASCAR sticks media in the back of the Wynn's ballroom.

The problem that has evolved out of the Integrated Marketing Communications business model is that those leading the department are too concerned with counting Tweets and what's "trending" and all of the other ever-changing conditions of social media and the Internet. Yes, that's important to do. But NASCAR strikes me as an organization constantly looking to throw the long touchdown pass. The quarterback can't do that without the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. And NASCAR is not doing its basic blocking and tackling. 

Here's another example: Brian France has announced sweeping rules changes for 2014, especially his "Game 7, winner-takes-all" championship format. There has been media criticism and France himself acknowledged some traditional fans won't like it. So why hasn't France been on the road, in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and at least some other early-season race markets meeting with media and fans to explain -- in person -- the what/why of what he's doing? This reminds me of when NHRA cut nitro race distances from the historic quarter-mile to 1,000 feet. It was the most dramatic change in drag racing history. Yet, NHRA simply announced it, but did nothing to go out and work to gain support among the fan base. To this day, surveys show the shorter race is cited by promoters as the biggest reason for decline in ticket sales. Even the President of the U.S. traditionally takes to the road after the State of the Union speech to sell his message and programs. Why isn't Brian France doing that? If it's arrogance, well, that's exactly what brought down Indy racing and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The failure to get out and tell NASCAR'S new story in key race markets represents a clear and serious failure of thought and deed by NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications leaders.

I saw a story last week about how Coca-Cola wanted some specific research data and "We had to transition from a PR department to a fully-integrated marketing communications model" according to the NASCAR IMC speaker. That is not in any way a proper task for a department doing PR/media relations. It proves what I said above, that communications functions do not belong under marketing. It's a separate and co-equal department.

Or should be.

An IMC exec issued a memo last week about the relaunch of NASCAR's media site. After touting all the new goodies the site had to offer, what struck me the most was a line near the bottom. If anyone had comments or questions, the writer wrote, they should be directed to another person. Translation: Talk to my underling, don't bother me.

I knew Bill France Jr. fairly well (my interview with him, in his office, the Tuesday before the 1978 Daytona 500 remains one of my most memorable) and Jim Hunter very well. I knew Bob Latford and Joe Whitlock and Houston Lawing and the Winston pros like Bob Moore, Bob Kelly, Chris Powell and others. No, the modern technology didn't exist back then, but those were people who understood it was essential for NASCAR to keep its basic humanity in dealing with the media. In the gizmo-obsessed world of today's NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications Department, that humanity is being lost almost daily.

Until that is reversed, I don't care how many rules changes Brian France makes, NASCAR will have trouble.



It's Phoenix International Raceway's 50th anniversary and a limited edition commemorative book -- Phoenix At 50: A Half-Century of Racing -- will be available at track merchandise locations during the Feb. 28-March 2 NASCAR weekend. After that, it can be purchased at the PIR ticket window or via Amazon.com. I wrote three stories for the book. Richard Petty wrote the foreward. 



I'll call it Arizona Speed Weeks. I'll be covering NHRA at the reborn Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park this weekend. See my stories starting Thursday in the Arizona Republic or AzCentral.com. Next week it will be NASCAR and that coverage means I'll be in the paper for 12 consecutive days starting this Thursday. And the following Saturday night, March 8, Steve Kinser will make what very likely will be his last World of Outlaws start in Arizona down in Tucson. Please check out my coverage and, especially for the latest news, my Twitter updates, @SpinDoctor500 . Thank you.

[ more next Monday . . . ]