PROFILE: Hosford helping drive Hyundai's success in the US

When he's not hanging 10, Chris Hosford helps Hyundai make big promises to car buyers. And it's starting to pay off, likely because honesty - even during tough times - is his top priority.

When he's not hanging 10, Chris Hosford helps Hyundai make big promises to car buyers. And it's starting to pay off, likely because honesty - even during tough times - is his top priority.

Walking the floor of the Chicago Auto Show in natty business attire, Chris Hosford doesn't look like a beach bum. But catch him in a quiet moment, and he'll likely tell you about a place called Old Man's Beach. That's the little piece of California shoreline where Hosford and buddies his age go to surf. "He's really sort of a lost-generation hippy," jokes longtime friend and colleague Ron Hartwig, EVP and chairman of Hill & Knowlton's California operations in Los Angeles. "He's always wanted to be a surfer." When it comes to his work, Hosford, director of communications at Hyundai Motor America, has been riding a major PR wave for the past four years. US sales have been rising since 1999. Business has been so good, in fact, that Hyundai has set ambitious US goals for 2005 and 2010. Hosford and his PR savvy have played a major role in the Korean automaker's US success, colleagues and journalists agree. He's built a network of PR agencies to keep Hyundai close to important markets and specialized industry publications. And he's kept his team lean, using it to focus on PR basics that produce long-term media attention. This year, for example, he has no new models to tout, so he is redoing his press kits and revising his press lists to make sure the right reporters get information when they need it. "He's got management savvy, and he's cool under pressure. He stuck with a tough situation, and he's turned it around," says Hartwig. When Hosford joined Hyundai in late 1996, the company was catching hardly any big waves. Problems with quality dogged Hyundai then, and it sold only 90,000 cars in the US in 1998. Rather than sugarcoat the bad news, Hosford developed a reputation among auto writers for being honest about the difficult situation the company faced. "He's always been a straight-from-the-shoulder type of guy," says Tom Bryant, editor of Road & Track magazine. Bryant has dealt with Hosford for more than 25 years. "He's one of those people you realize you can always pick up the phone and get," even in tough times when other PR people stop returning phone calls, Bryant says. Recalling Hyundai's dark days, Csaba Csere, editor of Car and Driver says of Hosford, "He knew some of the problems Hyundai was going through were self-inflicted. He knew that the sky was blue and not a deep purple, and he was pretty open about it." Doug Mazza, the former Hyundai COO who hired Hosford in 1996, agrees that he sees no reason to be anything but honest with reporters. "Chris is the consummate professional. He's new school," says Mazza, now EVP of an LA-based nonprofit. "Chris' relationship with the press was critical to him; it was not something that would be compromised." The honesty paid off, Hosford believes. "You can't just go and hide from people," he says. "I've got to communicate. I'm not going to change a reporter's opinion by hiding." Auto writers started giving Hyundai the benefit of the doubt by 1998, he says, but sales were still in the doldrums. That's when Hyundai decided to back its cars with a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty. That dramatic guarantee made Hyundai a big auto story. Hosford grabbed onto the plan, and used it to garner favorable media attention. "We focused all our energies on this. Everything we did mentioned the warranty - every single press release," he recalls. In 1999, the first full year the new warranty was available, sales skyrocketed to 163,190, from 90,217 in 1998. As the warranty became an old story, Hosford switched his PR efforts to pushing stories about warranties in general, and how consumers could decide which warranty made sense for them. "You've got to fish with the bait the fish want," Hosford says of those efforts. He and others credit his years as an editor with giving him a good sense of what pitches will play with editors. "He's got a great feel for what's newsworthy," says Steve Harris, VP of communications at GM, and Hosford's boss when they both worked for Chrysler. What's newsworthy these days is Hyundai's public pledge that it will sell 500,000 cars here by 2005, and 1 million by 2010. It sold 375,119 in the US last year when it ranked seventh, with 2.2% of the market. Hosford remembers that when he was at Chrysler, he'd advise against public sales forecasts, saying they could only come back to haunt a company if they weren't achieved. But he knows the auto world is wondering if Hyundai can keep growing, so he advised making the sales projections public. "I believe these are the right times to make these kinds of predictions," he says. Customers and dealers want to know Hyundai isn't just a flash in the pan. "We want to maintain our momentum," Hosford says. "We'll focus on our products because they're better than our competitors', not just as good." Hosford spends 20%-30% of his time visiting reporters and talking to his agencies (John Bailey & Associates in Detroit and Ketchum on the West Coast). "I'm able to stay in touch with what reporters are looking for, and with what our competition is doing," he says. He spends another 20%-30% on administrative duties, and admits that he keeps a close eye on the bottom line, even reusing paper clips and file folders. When he's not working or hanging out at the beach, Hosford likes to garden. It's no surprise considering that he's planted the seeds for a solid PR program at Hyundai, and has begun to reap the harvest of those efforts. ----- Chris Hosford 1996-present Joins Hyundai Motor America as director of communications 1981-1996 Various top PR positions, including VP of Hill & Knowlton LA (1981-1989); technology PR manager at Chrysler (1989-1993); COO and EVP of GCI in LA (1993-1995); founds and runs Hosford Consulting (1995-1996) 1979 Joins Freed, Crown, Lee Publishing. Serves as editor, Automotive Age; editorial director, the Cycle Group 1976 Joins Daisy Hi-torque Publications as editor, Pickup, Van and Off-Road 1969 Joins LA Herald-Examiner as photo editor

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