MEDIA: Automotive PR looks to enter the fast lane. For a group that thrives on innovation and forward thinking, the automotive industry has demonstrated mostly tunnel-vision in their approach to PR. That tack, however, is changing. Claire Atkinson reports

The world of automotive marketing has traditionally been something of a closed shop, where corporate secrets are guarded more closely than jewelry at Tiffany's. It is an industry where the old boy network rules and it's hard to break in as a newcomer whether you're a PR executive or a journalist.

The world of automotive marketing has traditionally been something of a closed shop, where corporate secrets are guarded more closely than jewelry at Tiffany's. It is an industry where the old boy network rules and it's hard to break in as a newcomer whether you're a PR executive or a journalist.

The world of automotive marketing has traditionally been something of a closed shop, where corporate secrets are guarded more closely than jewelry at Tiffany's. It is an industry where the old boy network rules and it's hard to break in as a newcomer whether you're a PR executive or a journalist.

But with the auto industry headed for a hard landing in 2001 given the cuts GM and Ford intend to make this year, some are learning to look beyond the main automotive press in order to attract new customers.

Although marketing departments gear their plans toward the big product launches at the numerous automotive trade show events, they're also looking at other ways to get attention.

Edelman's Jere Sullivan, deputy general manager of the Washington, DC office, explains that as competition heats up, car firms are becoming much more inventive about their press. 'They want to be in the sports section, food section and travel section as well as the automotive section,' he says.

Nissan, the Japanese car manufacturer that is currently undergoing something of a re-branding effort, also employs one of the industry's top designers, Diane Allen, who also happens to be one of the few women in the field, another peg to gain coverage.

Sullivan, who represents Nissan, says they are looking to reach more popular culture oriented titles such as the style and design title Wallpaper.

Nissan organized a round table with a group of car designers and invited a set of style writers to cover the event.

Sullivan adds: 'They organized a car ride from Rome to Florence, and in addition to taking auto writers, took travel beat writers from Conde Nast magazines,' says Sullivan.

However, some reporters are unimpressed by such efforts. Alex Taylor, who writes on the industry for Fortune, penned a diatribe against GM for trying too hard to curry favor with writers. He wrote that GM flew journalists and analysts to an Italian palazzo. 'While GM's improved approach is commendable, it seems to be putting the cart before the horse. Before it can be given more sympathetic treatment, there must be a substantive and favorable story on which to report,' he wrote in July 2000.

Most auto-trade PR executives know that they need to have good relationships with the main business writers in their sector. While Fortune magazine is undoubtedly important, one of the most sought after reporters in the auto industry is The Wall Street Journal's Joe White, who is the Detroit bureau chief.

The Wall Street Journal is primarily interested in 'corporate strategy and overall industry and marketing issues,' says an in-house source, and is not the place to be pitching new product stories.

White, described as approachable, works with a team which includes: Greg White, deputy bureau chief; Jeffrey Ball, who covers Daimler Chrysler and environmental issues; Robert Simison, global automotive editor who tracks imports. Other writers include Karen Lundegaard who covers e-commerce and retailing, while Nori Shirouzu's beat includes Ford. Sholnn Freeman, the news assistant, writes about sales, while Jocelyn Parker is the Dow Jones News Wires writer who covers the automotive industry. Freeman says publicists need to get their news to The Wall Street Journal bureau by 5pm at the latest to make the next day's paper, but if it's big enough, they can extend that deadline.

It goes without saying that this team is looking for an offbeat exclusive as opposed to blanket releases. Take the front page of The Wall Street Journal on January 9, where Jeffrey Ball wrote about a relatively obscure inventor looking to score a quarter of a billion dollars to get his clean car company off the ground. That story ran in the middle of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where news of Ford and Firestone's settlement of a high profile tire injury suit dominated coverage.

At Financial Times, Tim Burt is the motor correspondent covering major trade shows such as the one in Detroit this month. Though British owned, the paper has a large US team of reporters with a particular bias toward internationally oriented news items. The Brazilian auto industry was the subject of a recent news feature. The daily newspaper also published three auto supplements in 2000, one each in February, June and September.

If you're looking to reach the main business magazines, then try Keith Naughton, who joined Newsweek from Business Week in 1999 as the Detroit bureau chief. He is something of an industry veteran.

Taking over at Business Week is the acting Detroit bureau chief Joanne Muller, who's replacing Kathleen Kerwin for a period. The point of contact at Forbes in Robin Meredith. At Fortune, it's Alex Taylor.

Hyundai's director of communications Chris Hosford says he tries to talk to these people on a regular basis, but adds that his company has also been trying to reach consumers via media that don't traditionally cover the industry. Hosford says colleague Donna Kane, national manager of marketing programs, came up with an initiative aimed at women named 'Power of the Purse.'

Hosford says: 'We wanted to reach 'real' people who don't read the automotive press. The idea was to reach TV programs in the major metropolitan markets that didn't cover autos. We knew they wouldn't review autos, but we were looking to provide information to them.'

First, Hyundai researched what women's consumer conventions took place and then booked stands to make presentations. Then they contacted the local affiliates to say they'd be in the area and wanted to give advice about car buying tips for women. Kane acted as a spokesperson, giving demonstrations both at trade shows and on TV. Kane stayed in contact with the program directors all over the country and every year offers variations on the theme.

Of course there are a myriad of Internet sites covering the subject of cars. Some are content driven, while others are sales driven. It's important to have a clear idea of how your information will be used. One site, www.thecarconnection.com, is recommended by numerous PR executives and has picked up some industry awards.

In addition to women, who make up at least half the car buyers in the US, youths are a sought after demographic.

Karl Dahlquist, president of Vista Group, an automotive PR agency, has worked with clients including Mercedes-Benz and the GM design group. He says his agency is keen to gain a following among young people. 'We've gotten involved with DJ's from the top 50 music stations and got them involved in race track events to have them talk about the product. We are tying in with lifestyle media to attract the hip-hop and Afro-American community. Companies such as Ford have made a specific effort to target this segment.'

Edelman's Sullivan concludes that, finally, 'the old boy's network is becoming more diversified.'



WHERE TO GO

Newspapers: The Wall Street Journal's Detroit bureau chief Joe White; Detroit News; Detroit Free Press

Trade magazines: Automotive News; Car and Driver; AutoWeek; Automobiles; Road & Track

How-to magazines: Popular Science; Popular Mechanics

Web sites: www.thecarconnection.com; www.theautochannel.com; www.Car.com; www.izoom.com

Television & radio: Blue Sky Production's Autoline Detroit; The Nightly Automotive Report; National Public Radio's Car Talk.





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