By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Since we are immersed in the era of “fake” news and the phenomenon that suggests that an “alternative” interpretation of the facts can pass for the truth if it’s “spun” just so (and you don’t get caught), I would be thrilled to say that the PR practitioners in the auto business are immune from this unsavory behavior, but there are ominous signs that they aren’t, or that there are enough out there blatantly attempting to manipulate the media to spark genuine concern.
In ancient times – meaning before 1980 – a career in automotive PR was not only considered a noble pursuit, it was a profession stocked with grizzled ex-newspaper veterans brimming with talent, perspective, an innate understanding of things beyond the business and a willingness to tell a company’s story in the best possible light.
That innate understanding came in handy as the give and take between journalists covering the auto beat and the PR minions hired to tell the company’s story went back and forth unabated. Some days the media types would come out ahead and other days the PR folk would prevail, but generally the business went on with a collegial spirit of cooperation and everyone got enough of what they needed to keep it all going.
The auto PR business itself went into a decline for most of the 80s, as – especially in GM’s case – executives were put in charge of PR as an award of fealty and not because of any meaningful experience. There certainly were exceptions at the other companies, of course, but generally the 80s was the decade that could have been better for PR in the auto business, in a lot of instances.
At the top, an executive PR professional shadows the CEO of the company’s every move and is intimately familiar with every nuance of every situation facing the enterprise. He or she is a sounding board, a voice of reason, a calming influence and hopefully, a visionary who provides strategic guidance (although not every top PR person possesses that strategic component). It is an all-consuming role that requires knowledge, stamina and an innate sense of who the CEO is, from the goodness to the flaws, and everything in between. (Much of the Public Relations function was, in fact, invented by my father back in GM’s heyday from 1957 – 1979, when he ran the company’s PR department and basically created the role of modern public relations in the auto space.)
At the very top level, the role of a modern public relations executive charged with wrangling a auto company’s CEO hasn’t changed all that much since my father pioneered the discipline. (Oh, you don’t think – you CEOs out there – that you aren’t wrangled by your senior PR troops? Please.)
But in the modern era – as in right this very minute - things have gotten off track in the PR arena for a number of reasons. First of all, the rise of social media has certainly upended a lot of the old rules of engagement between a company’s PR minions and the automotive media. In fact, the fad among present-day PR operatives is to demean or blatantly dismiss traditional working journalists covering the auto beat and throw the doors wide open to anyone with a keyboard and half of a social following. This fad manifests itself in the relatively recent phenomenon that has non-journalists being put on the list for press cars in the hopes that they will spread a positive or even ebulliently giddy review of a company’s product, even though their audience may, in fact, be “MIA” for all intents and purposes.
That’s annoying to those most affected by it to be sure. As for me, since I don’t play the “schmooze” game, which would require me to pretend to be friends with multiple PR minions in order to get cars from the press fleets, the press cars I do get to drive are very few and far between. (For the record, I do have many friends who happen to be working PR operatives in this business, but good conversation and email exchanges are as far as it goes.)
But all of that is just a minor irritant in the larger scheme of things. What is most troubling in what passes for today’s auto PR dance is the blatant manipulation of both real and pseudo media types in the pursuit of “managing” a company’s image, no matter what or who is negatively affected along the way. (This goes way beyond the “fly away” media drives to pleasant locales in the dead of winter; those have become part and parcel of the modern PR arm-twisting and that isn’t going to change in our lifetime, apparently.)
There is an incredible arrogance rearing its ugly head among certain PR operatives that suggests that they’re smarter than everyone else – especially the people covering their respective companies – and because of that they feel entitled to trample on everything and everyone in their path if it means getting the results they want. Part of this toxic attitude stems from the overwhelming need to please company higher-ups, which the PR operatives in question believe can garner meaningful gold stars, and which will then translate into recognition and more money. I get that, to a degree, but when veteran PR practitioners are overly worried about gold stars there is serious cause for concern.
But then again I think the root cause of it is far more cynical, depressing and dystopian than that. There is an incredible air of condescension hovering over PR-orchestrated media events of late. Not only is it blatant and out in the open, it’s chillingly matter of fact, as in “We will do what we want, when we want when it comes to our interactions with you people in the press because as a group you’re all just lazy dilettantes and we can and will manipulate you or the situation to a fare thee well and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.” Or words to that effect.
As you can imagine, this “new order” of PR has not gone over well with the more enlightened in the automotive media. In fact, any thoughts of goodwill associated with the companies and executives in question have been torched because of the shit-heel PR execs who openly reek of condescension and who are the principal architects of this calculated manipulation.
The practicing members of the automotive media, for the most part, are extremely bright. And one in particular, aka yours truly, has an incredibly sensitive Bullshit Detector that sets off loud alarms when bad behavior is blatantly carried out in the name of positive press coverage. And it has been ringing non-stop for two weeks.
The prime offenders carrying these boneheaded plans out personify the arrogance and condescension that passes for the modern PR game these days in some quarters, and everyone in the business knows who they are and what they stand for, such as it is.
The bigger question is where does it stop? At what point does “manipulating coverage” by these scurrilous PR operatives in all of its depressingly ugly glory become a calculated presentation of “alternative facts” as a means to an end?
The auto companies as a group are about to be immersed in four years of absolute hell courtesy of the new establishment in Washington, D.C. Right now I would say that very few of these companies’ PR operatives are fit for the battles to come.
As for those certain PR practitioners, the ones who think they can get their way by the blatant manipulation and utter condescension directed toward the automotive media, be prepared for the withering pushback, because it will be unrelenting and unwavering.
Just remember, gold stars are meaningless in this arena, because when you well and truly suck at your profession and practice mayhem as a means to an end, we will make damn sure that there are meaningful consequences.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.