• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, March 29, 2015

STRONG WORDS and INFLUENTIAL PENSKE

"More times than not, the fan at home does not believe NASCAR."

From a PR standpoint, that's about as damning a statement as you can get. And it didn't come on Twitter or from some anonymous forum poster.

This sentence was the focal point of a column written post-Auto Club 400 by Jenna Fryer, motorsports writer for the Associated Press, the world's largest news-gathering organization. As opposed to Mike Harris, who preceded her on the beat, Fryer does an opinion column in addition to straight news coverage. Her column came out of the controversy of a couple of late-race invisible (at least, to the TV audience) cautions at Fontana, which clearly impacted the final results. Here's a link:

http://racing.ap.org/article/column-nascar-fans-are-buzzing-over-debris-cautions

The column, and the debate it triggered, should have been a Big Time Wake-Up Call to Brian France. And shaken the management of the Integrated Marketing Communications department. As I have said here many times, including just last week, the IMC theory is to PR what global warming is to real science.

It is, by nature, dehumanizing. And certainly not in keeping with how people like Bill France Jr. and Jim Hunter built the NASCAR business. Essential 1-on-1 professional relationships have been all-but neglected as IMC has gone all-in on social media. Traditional and basic media services have been dropped this season -- without notice -- despite the department being populated by more than 40 people. The approach is all about driving traffic on Twitter and other social media outlets. "What's Trending?" is EVERYTHING to them.

I wrote here last week that, sooner or later, this new dehumanized approach would have consequences. Now, let me be clear, I haven't spoken directly with Fryer about her column. I wasn't at Fontana and Higher Priorities meant I didn't closely follow the race on TV. But here's a FACT: Building and maintaining solid professional relationships is what media relations is all about. The NASCAR Industry, largely, isn't doing that. It's stunning to me how few PR people actually make the rounds in the media center, introducing themselves, saying hello, offering information or help, a cell phone number and E-mail address. I personally observed NASCAR's Chief Communications Officer in the Phoenix International Raceway media center but he did not offer the personal touch of coming around to say "hello" or -- God forbid -- "thanks for the coverage." The unspoken attitude conveyed: Well, of course, you're going to cover NASCAR! After all, we're NASCAR!

That's the way it was for decades at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Please note how that has turned out.

The importance of individual human relationships cannot be overstated. Great PR leaders like Jim Chapman didn't have to be told this -- they just knew it. This was one of the greatest compliments I ever received in the decades I lived the 24/7/365 racing PR life: I did the PR for the factory Porsche Indy Car team in 1988. Porsche greatly underestimated the challenge and produced an uncompetitive chassis (later replaced by a customer March) and engine. About a month before his death in an airplane crash, my great friend Al Holbert -- director of Porsche Motorsports North America -- was asked by Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch if he was surprised the national media hadn't been hammering Porsche for its embarrassing performance. While I wasn't present for this interview, I heard later than Holbert credited my own good relationships with the media as one reason. (I say Al's was the main reason.) 

Until NASCAR -- at its highest executive levels -- understands that nothing is more meaningful than the sound of the human voice, a handshake, a pat on the back, a face-to-face conversation, I expect more media earthquakes like the AP column. 

But will Brian France notice? And change course? First, he has to do some homework and understand what the problem is.


POWER PLAYERS for the week of March 29: This week's 10 most influential people in the Business and Politics of Motorsports, as selected by long-time journalist/publicist and industry insider Michael Knight. 

  1. Roger Penske -- His powerhouse IndyCar team qualifies 1-2-3-4 and finishes 1-2-4-5 at St. Pete. And American racing's most successful team owner speaks out strongly about messing with tires in NASCAR, against IndyCar international events, and calls for car rules stability to 2020 in the name of cost containment in a sponsor-challenged environment.

  2. Jenna Fryer -- The Associated Press' motorsports writer's very blunt column about NASCAR's invisible cautions -- intended to cost bad boy Kurt Busch the win at California? -- stirs-up the sanction's fan and Mainstream Media critics. And lays bare the lack of relationship building from the Integrated Marketing Communications department.

  3. Mike Helton: -- Is NASCAR's vice chairman and senior racing official about the lower the boom on any Cup crew chiefs for tampering with tires? A huge call -- or no call -- awaits.

  4. Sebastian Vettel -- Ends his own, and Ferrari's, long winless streak with pace and strategy in Malaysia. Ferrari remains motorsports' most passion-stirring name. A straight-up season-long Vettel/Ferrari vs. Lewis Hamilton/Mercedes battle is the best thing that could happen to Formula One right now.

  5Jack Beckman -- Fan favorite ends long Funny Car winless streak at the 4-Wide Nationals. Cancer survivors throughout the motorsports world are cheering.

  6. Dave Moody -- The first "off" weekend of the Sprint Cup season will provide plenty of opportunity for NASCAR fans to sound-off with SiriusXM's Main Man. How Moody steers the conversation will be a signal of how the season is going. 

  7. Ricky Craven -- He's the authority for those who get their NASCAR news on ESPN's SportsCenter. Should have gotten a spot on NBC's new crew.

  8. Donny Schatz -- The World of Outlaws' Main Main wins twice -- including his first in California since 2012.

  9. Don Schumacher -- The Roger Penske/Rick Hendrick of NHRA team owners doubles again with Jack Beckman and Antron Brown at the 4-Wide Nationals. "The Don" is recovering from cancer treatments.

10. Mike Davies -- Fox Sports' field operations senior VP tests a virtual reality software application at Auto Club Speedway. The technology supposedly enables viewers to "experience the event as if they were there." NASCAR's next revenue stream?

more next week . . . ]