Sunday, September 12, 2010


NASCAR recently announced a major overhaul of its communications and public relations functions, following what was described as a comprehensive industry-wide review. Several people have kindly asked my opinion about the changes-to-come.

My view is we'll have to see how the new "Integrated Marketing Communications" department actually functions. I won't go through the layout of what NASCAR is going to do. I have said for years it is a basic mistake to place together, for the purposes of an organizational chart, communications/PR and marketing. I certainly understand how both can trade-off benefits, one to the other, but I can tell you this for sure: No journalist wants to think he/she is being "marketed to" or "sold." To have a PR rep, who is under the control of marketing, dealing with media is a fundamental misunderstanding of that constituency group.

The truth, of course, is different from the perception. More than 25 years ago, when I was CART's communications director, I was talking with Roger Penske in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about business details of an upcoming CART-promoted race. Thinking in terms of ticket and corporate sales, Roger said to me: "Now we'll see how good a salesman you are." Respectfully, I answered by telling Roger that in working with the media and other influential opinion-shapers, I already was a salesman. "A salesman of image and ideas," is the way I phrased it.

NASCAR says the department will be led by a "Chief Communications Officer (CCO) who will become part of the senior leadership team, reporting directly to NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps, with a direct line to Brian France." I get it that the CCO title is trendy, but it's one with peril. I bet I can tell you in whose direction the fingers will be pointed the first time an out-of-the-loop promoter, owner, driver or sponsor manager complains about a "lack of communications."

Here's what I passionately believe is the most important thing:

I hope that the new CCO will know enough and care sufficiently to not operate solely behind Facebook, Twitter, IM and Email. What the modern NASCAR culture lacks is one-on-one relationships. NASCAR, itself, was built by classic drum-beating publicists like Jim Hunter (who will become VP of Special Projects), Bob Latford, Joe Whitlock, Big Tim Sullivan, Houston Lawing and others (and, in the Winston days, by the RJR staff) who would drive to towns nearby the races on goodwill missions. They'd go visit the newspaper, radio and TV offices. They knew the names of the sports editor’s children, the sports director’s wife, and -- yes -- the local media’s adult beverage of choice. The upcoming race was talked-up, news releases handed-out, and ultra-valuable personal relationships built.

When’s the last time anyone followed in that proud NASCAR tradition? Way-too-often these days, too many PR people think "one-on-one communications" is 140 characters on Twitter. WRONG! No social network in the universe can replace the essential human touch of a smile, a handshake, a look in the eye, a "Thank You."

New Mr. or Ms CCO, please, please, please, remember-- above all else -- the Human Touch.

Beyond that, since NASCAR is using executive recruiting firms, I'll tell a personal story about my experience with a search company.

In the fall of 1992, I received an unexpected call from a New York City-based "searcher," looking to fill the VP-Communications opening at the National Hockey League. I was with Newman/Haas Racing at the time but came to learn that senior-level people at a couple of prestigious media organizations had mentioned me as a good candidate. (I had been a member of the Hockey Writers Association while assistant sports editor at the Philadelphia Daily News.)

While many key specifics of the job were as yet unrevealed to me, I had an interest. Rather than simply submitting the usual paper resume, however, I also provided a video resume. That was outside-the-box thinking at the time. The video, less than 10 minutes in length, showcased some of my PR "greatest hits" and kind testimonials from Paul Newman, Al Unser Jr., Mario Andretti and several prominent journalists. A brief segment showed how, at the 1989 Indianapolis 500, I had arranged with the advance team for Vice President Dan Quayle and his family to receive personalized team jackets, and that the Vice President wore his during an ABC-TV interview.

Before my meeting with the recruiter, I called her office to confirm receipt of my materials. When we met at the St. Louis airport Ambassadors Club, after several minutes of polite conversation, I showed her a file I had brought with hard-copy evidence to further support what had been on the video, including a photo of VP Quayle in his jacket and an AP shot of Mrs. Quayle with Mario -- with a crewmember carefully positioned for maximum visibility of the Kmart/Texaco Havoline ID on his shirt. I was surprised to observe something of a blank look. So, I asked if she had watched the video, and was kind of shocked when she said no, and really shocked by the reasoning: "No one else sent a video, so I didn't think it was fair to the other candidates to look at yours."

So, instead of being credited for my extra effort, I was penalized by the search-firm rep, on the basis others hadn't thought of, or maybe were too lazy, to do what I had done.

The process didn't advance much beyond that meeting. (As it turned out, I wound-up managing Mansell Mania the next year, and learned more during that PPG Cup championship season with Nigel than I had at any other time in my career.) A few months later, however, I received another call from the same search firm, only this time it was from one of the partners. He asked me about my experience with his recruiter. I told him about the video and expressed disappointment that his person had not even looked at it. Well, to make a long-story-short, he said he was investigating because a few other candidates had complained, and he offered me an apology. He ended the conversation by letting me know the person I had dealt with was no longer at the firm -- she had left for a job in the personnel office at the Clinton White House.

So, I guess that's why my outreach to a Republican Vice President of the United States didn't impress her!

I couldn't help but remember the above some time later, when a former bar bouncer -- hired as a Clinton White House personnel office security director -- was discovered to have collected the FBI files of hundreds of Republicans.


FAST LINES: Congratulations to retired Charlotte Observer writer Tom Higgins on being elected to the National Motorsports Press Association's (I'm a member) Hall of Fame . . . Rare good judgment by elected officials: Oklahoma City City Council voting down public funds for an ALMS street race, which the promoter had ridiculously claimed would bring Final Four-level economic benefits . . . Let's just say it -- Any media outlet who interviews white trash Levi Johnston has an agenda of trying to embarrass Sarah Palin. I saw a report that the CBS morning show has had him on SIX times. And, according to USA Today, Johnston was one of the "stars" (the paper's description) at Entertainment Tonight's Emmy party, which tells you all you need to know about ET . . . USA Today hasn't had a motorsports special section for several years now, but last week published a 12 pager for the start of the NFL season. Seven of those pages were full-page ads.

[ more next Monday . . . ]