Journalists support role of PR

The global automotive industry, and particularly the Big 3 US car companies, have been making the headlines regarding its future survival in the economic downturn.  What is interesting is the level of support for PR emerging from journalists who are actually considering the impact of losing players in this huge industry.

Automotive News reports how Ford’s CEO, “Mulally has identified the public’s skepticism as a barrier to Ford’s long-term recovery” and goes on to state: “Ford must continue the PR campaign to make a perception change stick with the public.”

It can be easy to be defensive when times get tough, and the first reaction among some in PR in the US auto industry was to complain that its voice wasn’t being heard. 

There has been a very close relationship between the specialist automotive media and PR practitioners, and just last week, I heard a top UK journalist claim the coming year is going to need both to work even closer together.

But the industry needs to communicate much more widely – the WSJ reports the US car companies are taking to the internet, eg Ford is using multi-media to tell the Ford Story

But again there seems to be a sense of defensiveness – Ford’s online expert, Scott Monty is cited as saying: “The auto makers in general have gotten a black eye in the media, and we didn’t feel like we were getting a fair shake.”

The industry does need to ensure the public and politicians value its social and economic contributions as well as recognising the efforts that have been made in recent decades to become more efficient, cost effective and build vehicles that are more environmentally sensitive than ever.

That’s clearly a job for public relations – but such communications need to genuinely reflect change.  Short-cutting the mainstream media by going online with the message is one route – but the credibility of independent journalists who understand and support the message is even more vital.

Arguably there has been too much clinging to the old ways and particularly the short-term profits made from larger vehicles in the US – bolstered by the lower fuel prices there. 

There are real perceptions that need to be addressed and relationships built to change these.  The specialist auto media of course have a vested interest in supporting the message – the UK Guild of Motoring Writers recently reported how its members need to be prepared for fewer car loans and launches in 2009.  But their voice is important in helping other influencers and publics understand the wider perspective of the industry, and the knock on effects of the “credit crunch” on the sector.

Maybe now times are really tough, we’ll see fewer attacks by journalists on PR practitioners and more recognition of how the two need to work together to ensure the public are better informed.

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14 Replies to “Journalists support role of PR

  1. Thanks – interesting to see this focus in a UK newspaper (if you can count FT online as that), with no mention of the similar needs for those auto firms based here. Most of what was in this article has been reported elsewhere already, but presumably FT wanted to review for its readers.

  2. The big problem for most major industries is that you wouldn’t start from here if you had any choice. Most are built on a 19th or 20th century model as Catherine highlights – although the globalisation dynamics which now affect the “economies of scale” mentality are driven by 21st century realities.

    Could you afford to set up a new personal mobility company and meet all the legislative requirements for safety and environment that have been introduced over the last 50 years or so?

    It is okay to talk about short-term rental models, but these only work if the car industry is able to produce the vehicles in the first place. I remember a discussion a few years ago about investing more in public transport – but those advocating this had ignored the fact that it would be impossible to build the trains and infrastructure required without huge investment – let alone considered if the skills and knowledge to do so could be found.

    I’m not convinced the communications abilities of big industries, such as automotive, really understand the issues. Promoting electric vehicles seems like same-old, same-old to me. This technology has been around for decades – but the motivation to pursue it was not 100% there when “gas-guzzlers” could be sold for more profit (especially the case in the US).

    A couple of years ago, biodiesel was promoted as the saviour – without the wider perspective of its impact on food production.

    One key player we have not considered is the oil industry – which has thrived like a parasite on the automotive and other big industries. We don’t just have a car culture, but an oil one. Look at the plastics around you – and these are the goods that cannot be readily recycled. (Indeed, cars used to be more recyclable when there was more metal in them).

    As the discussion has shown, the key issues for PR in big industries are power, relationships and responsibilities. The tendency during tough times though is undoubtedly to exploit your power and relationships and abandon responsibilities.

    One of the greatest responsibilities in life, I believe, is to sort out your own problems. As such, I tend to agree with others here that bailing out industries is not the solution. As we’ve seen with the banks in the UK (and elsewhere), the response seems to have been typically selfish.

    So maybe assistance should be given more at the grassroots end – helping the small, entrepreneurs to identify solutions – even encouraging such businesses to spring from the “wrekage” of current mega-industries.

    But where does that leave PR – do we also need a new entrepreneurial spirit? Is the PR industry also predicated on 19th and 20th century models?

  3. As I was reading these comments, a couple of ideas occurred to me.

    1) Personal mobility. While I believe this is important, I don’t think it is an either/or proposition. Yes, there are locations where low population density makes shared options difficult, but we need to be thinking in a much more multi-modal way. Kiss and Ride systems do this, as does the recent innovation of bike rental stations in cities. There are also solutions such as super short-term car rental, allowing people to transport heavy items without having to own and maintain a car. We need to think much more about transport services and less about how we’ve always provided transport. PR could play a hugely useful role in facilitating that conversation.

    2) The essential role of mobility and unequal power relationships. Because mobility is so central to our society, I believe that these sectors have turned into bullies and blackmailers. Yes, we need transport, but if the Big 3 cannot do the job competently, why should they be bailed out? Let someone else do the job. This disease also strikes public transport: in France, the transport unions have a totally distorted level of power because of their ability to paralyze the country. And frankly, this power is often used pathologically. Rather than keeping strikes for critical issues, they are banal. A number of extreme unions (because it must be made clear that even across the Parisian transit system, different lines have different unions and are thus more or less subject to disruption, with some unions using strikes frivolously and others for valid reasons) fight for their partisan views, coopting the language of solidarity, when in fact they are trying to protecting very narrow interests. There have been studies showing that each prolonged transport strike is absolutely devastating for small and medium-enterprises (SMEs). SMEs, which have relatively modest politically power, are the backbone of the economy. These power issues must be addressed, and PR as stakeholder relations can play a role.

  4. I’ve been watching the debacle of the US automotive industry unfold with morbid curiosity, borne initially from my upbringing, which took place under the shadow of Ford of Dagenham, (on your Google Map you’ll find it at the outer-most reach of London’s East End) and because the global financial woes have acted as the asteroid-strike for this industrial dinosaur. I have to confess to a bout of giggly retro-teenage ‘OMG! What Were They Thinking’ as they flew their planes in and refused to put their hands up at the command to change, followed by a deep belly-laugh as, roundly caught out, they turned up the next time in their hybrids. Moment missed methinks. The ‘turning point’ should have been a collective show of hands at the moment the congressional committee asked them if they would trade in the jets.

    Anyway, to the point. Ford of Dagenham wielded enormous power where I came from. If people were laid off, we all suffered, regardless of parental employment. If the unions – at the time – said they were chilly, we all rushed in with blankets. All our livelihoods depended on things going smoothly ‘at the plant’ – and my parents had nothing to do with the car industry! Fords – and the UK motor industry – were among the untouchables and local and central governments endeavoured to keep them sweet. My first front page was a story about a significant regional company going under because of motor industry unrest. What didn’t make the picture were the tears of the burly managing director as he explained to an 18-year-old cub reporter how his life had fallen apart and how he couldn’t face laying off his loyal staff that day. The car industry had power but acknowledged little responsibility for those who depended on it. Years later, while I was working in the UK’s Midland region, the motor industry still held sway and, if it sneezed, we all caught a cold. Gradually, as the beginnings of convergence became evident, this power dissipated and although people suffered financially and emotionally as they adapted to the change, the vacuum left by multiple takeovers, plant closures and job losses was, to a certain extent, filled. Not necessarily satisfactorily, but at least to a point.

    The cynic in me says of course the journalists are going to discover an accord with public relations in this instance. Mainstream media walk the same evolutionary path as the car makers. As Brian points out, not only does a vast amount of advertising revenue (and their livelihoods) depend on their comfortable co-existence with the motor industry – their very jobs will be at stake. After all, who needs a specialist motoring journalist when the motor industry is no more? Bet Jeremy Clarkson is glad he diversified.

    When I drive I use a banged up old Honda Odyssey – it fits three teenagers, their mates and their gear and is light on petrol – but I would rather catch a train if I could. My preferred and regular method of transport is the ferry which takes me across the harbour to downtown Auckland but generally, public transport is in short supply in New Zealand. As a grateful immigrant, it is perhaps the only criticism I would level at my adopted homeland – we are too dependent on cars here, even though there is no ‘car industry’ to speak of. This is partly due to the challenging terrain, which doesn’t lend itself to rail networks and partly due to the remarkably high proportion of petrol heads contained in a relatively small population.

    But I digress. Currently, the US automotive industry embodies the economic transition from 19th and 20th century operations to 21st century ones. It is an old business model struggling to survive in a new environment. Ford’s much trumpeted foray into social media (there are some quite interesting interviews and views on this at propenmic by the way) is ‘too little, too late’. Good use of social media is not going to change an outmoded business culture – you still have to fix what you do first. New technologies have been available to the motor industry for years and they could have made a difference a long time ago – they simply chose not too (or at least, it would appear so), therefore the industry’s lack of foresight or failure to act appropriately and in good time has its price.

    I sat on my hands and didn’t post about this as I had a feeling that Heather, with her particular expertise, would provide us with some insight – and thank you Heather for doing so. I believe the demise of the US Triumvirate is significant, not just for those who live in its shadow, but for the other ‘big’ industries that drive the western economies. They should be watching with keen interest – the old saying ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’ springs to mind. It will be interesting to see if Joao’s description of new approaches gains currency or if even that turns out to be too little too late. That said, not just the industries have to change – we ‘petrol heads’, with or without a car industry in our back yard must shift gear too. If users want to participate, create and demand, they must also accept responsibility and be prepared to change. The job for public relations is to facilitate this change and develop new, relevant thinking for both the industries and the users.

    As to the ‘bail out’ it is as ineffectual as me thinking I’d quite like to still be able to win the 100 metres on sports day. No matter how much I might like to it’s just not going to happen because I am not at High School any more and I am no longer fit enough, nor fast enough to compete without significant damage occurring. My insistence on competing (despite my inability to participate at the required level) does not entitle me to expect a third party to carry me to the finish line at the expense of all those directly involved or others watching anxiously on the perimeter. Instead, I should be looking at a new way of running in an as yet undetermined space that includes and supports those who like – or need – to participate. Even if that means reinventing the wheel.

  5. Heather, I agree with your analysis that protecting the status quo (or the job) might be the real reason behind the support to PR by journalists in this industry. In fact, these days there seem to be a lot of joint strategies (PR and Media) to legitimise special interventions and helps by governments around the world to industries in difficulties. Maybe these “unions” are a sign of proximity, but surely the relationships between PR and journalists will not continue “business as usual” in the times to come.

    There are certainly interesting examples of sustainable mobility transformation coming from the automotive industry as Daimler’s “e-mobility” project, recently arrived to Italy. 100 Electrical Smarts will soon be running on Italy’s Rome, Milan and Pisa and charged exclusively with RCES (Renewable Energy Certificate System), energy produced from renewable sources. After London and Berlin, these Italian cities are being prepared by the utility Enel (disclosure: I’m an employee) with an infra-structure of intelligent charging points to allow the users to test this new concept starting from 2010. Operations like these, which bring together a big automotive group and big utilities, will certainly contribute to change the perception of the motor industry.

  6. I think Brian has some good points, particularly in relation to advertising. In my experience, this discipline has continued to dominate the thinking of the motor industry in all its communications. The majority of PR work is no more than securing coverage of new car launches in the specialist media – basically “free” advertising.

    So although internally I have seen (at least in Europe and Japan) recognition of the need to address issues we all knew were coming our way (cost, over-capacity, environment, oil issues, etc etc), this tended to be more on the operational side than in communications.

    I am starting to see many PR folk whose strengths are specialist media relations struggling in the new climate – particularly if they are made redundant.

    If there is an industry left – which I believe there will be – I think it will have to have better management and more strategic PR folk involved. But who would look at the industry as a career path today?

    And to pick up Toni’s point – I’ll believe that governments are rejecting the personal mobility arguments when they invest in better public transport. For most of us, there’s no choice but the car, regardless of its costs.

  7. advertising is the magic word today that gets me past the spam filter.

    Seems fitting.

    Car company (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler) advertising generally stinks, and because the ads are so lousy, sales are bad, too.

    Editorially (which may be stetching the definition of editorial in many markets) ar companies get puff pieces from journalists all over the world.

    Of the Detroit Three (no longer the Big 3) the only senior executive trusted by knowledgable people is Bob Lutz. Mullaly sells airplanes, and Nardelli devoted his career at Home DEpot to alientating store managers and employees and extracting millions from shareholders when the decided to fire him.

    Anyone looking for a good article about the Detroit three and journalists need only find the curretn issue of Fortune Magazine, with the 57 Belair on the cover. The piece is sort of a retrospective on the career of a writer who has covered the car business for Fortune for decades.

    This week I got a little magazine custom-published by Toyota, outling its operations in North America.

    And in my local daily papers I read threats by the Chrylser Canada president, trying to blackmail the Canadian government.

    The larget consumer automitve publication in the world is the Toronto Star Wheels sections — over half a million copies of lots and lots of broadsheet pages, 52 times a year. “Clean” too.

    The Automotive News mea culpa ad for GM was written by the Bovine Excrement Advertising Agency Inc., and if it was approved by GM’s senior PR exec, he, she or it needs to be replaced, along with Wagoner.


  8. Heather, directly or indirectly both of us -plus a huge number of our colleagues around the world- are sustained at least in part by the car industry. So no intention on my part to advocate Michael Sorkin’s statement.

    I echoed it because only a few months ago such a radical statement, in an elitist event populated in large part by opinion leaders from the urban mobility community, would have been met by sneers or laughs.
    Not this time.
    A sign of the times.

    Mo.Ve has developed in these last seven years a huge and remarkable body of knowledge on ‘the car which gave us personal freedom, with many collateral undesired effects’.

    Yet, as we see that today in washington and in other capitals, public policy decision makers, pressed by both environmental and financial issues, seem to think otherwise.

    I wonder if those of us who work for or on behalf of the car industry figured this would happen, advised their clients/employers on how to cope or, more bluntly put, just kept on going in the same direction of push and shove and therefore failed miserably in their -can we say?- strategic reflexive role of interpreting stakeholder expectancies or in their -can we sya again?- strategic educative role of assisting their peers within car companies in more effectively enalbing them to govern their respective stakeholder relationships.

  9. Toni,

    Picking up on Kristen’s point, I think there is a huge amount of shaking out that can be done in big industries – although as such powerful global economic and social powers, change will be like steering the Titanic.

    There are many ways that industries can and should change – ideas like micro-manufacturing have been dismissed (especially in agro-business), but we should remember that the majority of people (at least in the UK) are employed in small-medium enterprises, and these have lots of local and personal benefits that add up to global benefits.

    Many sectors, including the car industry started out in a much more fragmented and interesting way. Lots of small entrepreneurs, working in partnerships of designers, engineers, coach-builders and other crafts before it all became a mass market.

    Today though, the pressures of globalisation have led down the route of over-production and giant organisations that now almost have to survive because of the impact of their demise. That’s not just the car industry, but true of banks and other financial institutions which used to be more like the home and loan company in It’s a Wonderful Life, where there were personal connections to local communities.

    And, as Tony indicates the big concerns have power – including that of PR – to influence at the highest level. We’ve come to believe in the might of the mega-brand, when smaller is often better.

    Interestingly, these smaller concerns may not need mediators (which is the role for PR as a boundary-spanning relationship builder). Is that a bad thing? Is PR really part of the problem not the solution to the current situation?

    I don’t agree that the car industry is “technically terminated” – or perhaps I mean the concept of personal mobility. It might be okay for an urbanite to think of “public transport” in an idealistic way. But the realities are somewhat different. The London Underground for example is 100 years old – great innovation at the time, but who could conceive of introducing such a leap forward today.

    The car gave us personal freedom – and if you live outside the urban environment, without it, you’d never be able to travel anywhere. Sure we can all live more virtual lives sat at our PCs, but that’s not sustainable for a population.

  10. Heather,
    at the recent MoVe Forum in Venice, the famous american iconoclast, urbanist and architect Michael Sorkin shocked the 100 strong elite audience of european political, private, social and academic sector leaders on the urban mobility issue, by bluntly stating that ‘the car industry as we know it today is the major obstacle to sustainability and is technically terminated’ and that ‘it is only because of the therapeutic insistance of trade unions and local auto manufacturing communities, that there is still discussion over if and how to revamp it’.
    I would add-on to the resistance, also a good part of the public relations community which is much more powerful than it appears.
    Actually, it is possibly the most powerful of the ‘invisible’ subjects who have resisted and are continuing to resist the pulling of the plug.

  11. Interesting post, Heather. At least the Big 3 CEOs drove to Washington this last time. I think their failure to do so the first trip, and showing up in private planes to ask for a financial bailout, reveals a disconnect between behaviours and words in these organisations. You can complain that you don’t get fair coverage in the media, but in my experience, the best PR demonstrates a story rather than telling it, and that doesn’t seem to be something these companies have fully integrated yet.

    That being said, there is always a certain level of education to be done, especially in technical industries. I’ve been working in the agrifood sector for a decade, and I never cease to be amazed at how ignorant many people are about agriucltural realities. I’ve even had a medical doctor make comments that were totally unscientific!

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