Brian Kilgore recently asked about the financial arrangements between editorial content and car makers in the context of a competition offerered by CAR magazine. He wondered if this might the new model of PR. To coincide with the Frankfurt Motor Show, I thought I’d take the covers off how PR in the UK automotive industry works.
In the UK, relationships between auto manufacturers and specialist motoring media date back more than a century – and many of the common practices, such as offering early drives of new cars, have changed little. The tradition is well established that the industry offers media opportunities to generate stories – and generally picks up the bill.
In the “golden days” of London’s Fleet Street, the PR industry had generous expense accounts for long lunches and pitching stories. Back in the 1950s, cars were glamourous and as the European industry got back into gear after the war, the international press launch was created by Bob Sicot of Renault. His choice of Corsica as a venue meant he could avoid the prying eyes of the new agressive car magazines, who were prepared to break embargoes (unlike their more gentlemanly predecessors). It is hard to imagine now, but back then a new car model generated front page headlines and the type of attention seen today only for the likes of Apple’s iPhone.
In providing select groups of media from across Europe with an opportunity to test a vehicle within a planned format, Bob’s all-expenses paid launch established the approach that remains prevalent today.
This might seem unethical with journalists being feted in exchange for press coverage. But ironically, in the UK at least, this did not lead to soft media coverage. Critical reviews are commonplace, expected, and largely accepted. It has led to a highly credible, specialist media, whose endorsement of a car is much valued by customers and the industry.
But life is changing – there are increased pressures on PR budgets and demands to demonstrate return on investment. Coverage is monitored and evaluated; journalists are ranked and prioritised. We are also seeing more targeting as opposed to the classic “mass market” approach, with PR practitioners working closely with individual publications and journalists to develop interesting angles and exclusive stories – guaranteed coverage.
Pressure on budgets has led to PR practitioners working more closely with marketing colleagues to piggyback their activities. This is the case with the CAR feature and BMW as the prize offered to a reader had been planned for key customers and so the PR department was able to offer CAR an exclusive opportunity for a reader to enjoy this experience. I am sure most readers (in UK at least) expected BMW to be paying even if it wasn’t clearly stated.
What is interesting in this case is that the “deal” took place between the PR practitioner and the editorial team – not two marketing departments. In the past, both would have melted like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz at the suggestion of such commercialism. Generating press coverage was “pure” and reflected a love of cars on both sides. Indeed, most automotive PR practitioners came from a background of journalism – and likely shared engineering apprenticeships or qualifications rather than media or business ones.
Making commercial arrangements is no longer seen as something marketing does. Journalists recognise their publications are businesses and PR practitioners are aware of the economics of their function. Both need to demonstrate commercial savvy to retain their licence to operate.
Some might see this as increased professionalism – but it does raise issues that challenge ethical practice. If the industry picked up the tab with little expectation in return, journalists and PR practitioners could retain a belief in their impartiality, and credibility. Today, although the excessively high spending luxury days are largely behind us, the modern exchange relationship may be seen as less ethical.
It seems unlikely that, in the UK and Europe at least, we will see a move to a situation where the industry does not fund car launches. But greater transparency of the funding is likely. The real ethical question comes if the industry seeks to control what is reported by the media. In my experience, this has never been a successful strategy when tried – but of course, one could argue that the majority of the media self-censor their reports.
Indeed, Adrian Monck sees the BBC Top Gear programme as cheerleading for the automotive industry. Although the truth is that the industry is often no fan of the show – especially in its attitudes in respect of the environment and safety.
Regardless of the century-old close relationship between those who love to write about motoring and those whose job it is to represent the industry – both have to face up to the fact that there are now biggers issues than 0-60mph acceleration times and sleek new car designs.
I’m not sure the motor industry provides a new model in terms of financial arrangements – indeed, practices of PR-pays are not confined to the car world in the UK and Europe. We will undoubtedly see closer working relationships as the media and PR practitioners need to justify budgets and deliver results. But, the socially-minded days of chums enjoying a leisurely lunch or exotic car launch are being replaced with a more professional approach on both sides. How this plays out in terms of questions about ethics remains to be seen.