John Crawford uses his experience as an automotive reporter in his native Australia to guide Bentley Motors toward credibility in the media and to assist the automaker in building its US sales.
There are certain adjectives that seem to stick to John Crawford, PR director for Bentley Motors, no matter who you ask: old school, funny, and, most of all, charming. While the lilting accent of his native Australia gives him a hand up in the charm department, this jazz-loving father of two backs it up with an engaging enthusiasm.
"He is the kind of guy you'd want to go drinking with," says Dutch Mandel, editor of AutoWeek magazine. "He is both a gentleman and a man's man. The PR world could use more John Crawfords. The world in general could use more John Crawfords."
Despite his clear ability to win over the media, the PR world was almost robbed of Crawford's presence. In his younger years, he was more focused on being part of the press rather than influencing it. At 21, he decided that he was "intelligent, I've got a good voice, why don't I go into radio?" he recalls and signed up for an announcers course at a local school. After graduation, he became the first person from the school to actually get an on-air job. Eventually, he worked his way up to become a DJ at the number-one station in Sydney, interviewing rock icons like the Rolling Stones. But, he says, "Through all of this, I was a budding writer."
Cars have been a passion for Crawford since his youth. Through his radio work, he met "some guys who were automotive journalists" and began writing freelance stories for car publications.
"I got to drive all these fantastic cars, write stories about them, and get paid," he says. Tired of the pressure of worrying about ratings, Crawford jumped at the chance to join Modern Motor, a popular automotive magazine in Australia, as a staff writer. Within a year, he was promoted to editor. Five years into his new career, Crawford says he hit a crossroads when he did a story about a well-known Australian adventurer who was driving a Mini Moke in the London-to-Sydney car rally, which runs 30,000 miles through 30 countries in 30 days, as a stunt. Crawford went along as the navigator, but before he even began the race, the company sponsoring the car, British Leyland Australia, offered him a PR job when he returned.
"This car had no chance of winning, but we finished with the car intact. We finished at the steps of the Sydney Opera House, and I started the next day in PR with absolutely no knowledge at all," he says. "I had been on several hundred car launches as an automotive journalist, so I thought back to those and used those as my training ground."
The company eventually became Jaguar Rover Australia, and Crawford was offered the chance to move to the US to handle PR for the Jaguar brand.
"I happened to be in England at Jaguar, and they were telling me they were having difficulty finding someone for this job, so I volunteered," he says.
The job lasted four years, but "when my visa was up, I had to go back to Australia," he recalls. He was quickly offered a job at Daewoo Automotive Australia, which was just starting up in that country and suffered from an image as being an inferior product.
"It was a wonderful challenge," says Crawford. "The problem, of course, was that the car writers were skeptical and, being Australian, totally cynical."
Crawford attacked the issue by concentrating on the cars' engineering.
"I managed to convince the journalists that these Korean engineers knew their business," he explains. "It was just a case of absolute, intense focus to make sure the messages were simple, consistent, and repeated by everyone in the company," he says.
Although he enjoyed the job, after four years, he says, "The chairman of Rolls-Royce and Bentley rang me up to tell me Volkswagen had just bought the company, and they were going to make a big push into America." It was a challenge he couldn't resist.
"For me, the big appeal with Bentley was that it's a brilliant British brand, virtually invisible, that had to be put on the map. The task here was to start from scratch and build some credibility."
Crawford is not exaggerating. In 1980, the company did not sell a single car in North America. Using only PR, devoid of any company advertising, Crawford set out to change that. This year, Bentley estimates it will sell more than 2,000 cars in North America. Through September, USA Today reports the company has sold 553 cars, an increase of more than 86% from the same period last year.
Crawford began his work at Bentley by creating a press list of the most important people to influence, focusing on automotive press at first, then expanding later to lifestyle and business media. With the newly designed Continental GT on the market last spring, Crawford created a targeted campaign that raised the brand's visibility enormously by this year, with the car showing up in publications from USA Today to Premiere as celebrity clientele and car lovers both embraced the newest offering from the venerable English icon.
"We've achieved a terrific level of success with very small resources," he says. "We have 100% confidence from company management. That means a heck of a lot to any PR challenge."
Those who've worked with Crawford credit his knowledge of both PR and the media for helping to craft that success.
"The automotive press loves this guy because he understands," says JMPR head Joe Molina, whose California-based company has done work with Bentley. "He understands the process, and he knows what can and can't be done. He's very strategic."
"John is of the old school in that he understands the publication and the media with which he works," he says. "He doesn't try to feed the same story to each outlet."
For Crawford's part, he says that maintaining a sense of excitement and curiosity has helped him to stay engaged in PR over the years.
"I think the secret of my success is that I am absolutely focused on what I do," he says. "I try to explore as many facets of it as I can."
PR director for Bentley Motors
Hired as PR director, Rolls-Royce & Bentley Motor Cars (USA)
PR director, Daewoo Automotive Australia
VP of PR, Jaguar Cars, North America
PR manager, British Leyland Australia. In 1985, when company became Jaguar Rover Australia, he became PR director in the US
Joined Modern Motor magazine as assistant editor. He was named editor in 1973