ANALYSIS: Automakers need to drive home information on SUVs

Despite safety and fuel-efficiency concerns, SUV sales remain high. But auto-industry PR teams must be ready should the naysayers gain momentum.

Despite safety and fuel-efficiency concerns, SUV sales remain high. But auto-industry PR teams must be ready should the naysayers gain momentum.

Automakers love sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and, for the past several years, so have consumers. SUVs account for one-quarter of all new vehicles sold in the US, and produce half the profits automakers earn. But recently, SUVs have been the subject of two PR attacks and one highly publicized negative remark by a federal official. And Massachusetts and Connecticut are reviewing state use of SUVs, considering cutting back on such vehicles. January SUV sales fell slightly to 25.2% of all new vehicles sold, compared with 25.3% in January of 2002. But automakers, both foreign and domestic, profess not to be worried. "The special-interest groups or publicity hounds are a very small group of people," says Eron Shosteck, communications manager with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a DC-based industry group. "The American people are tuning it out. They still love SUVs." Shosteck is referring to two recent anti-SUV campaigns, one by a church group asking, "What Would Jesus Drive?" and saying it wouldn't be an SUV. The second was from conservative columnist Arianna Huffington, who equated driving SUVs with supporting terrorism because of the amount of gas they need. These efforts strike some as so extreme that they don't warrant a very vocal response, says Chris Hosford, director of communications at Hyundai Motor America. "It's something we need to be careful about," he says. "One can definitely protest too much. We can go overboard in defending something that doesn't need defending." Some in the industry see a conspiracy afoot, noting that both campaigns were handled by Fenton Communications, an East Coast firm that has taken on controversial topics in the past. But David Fenton, head of the firm, dismisses such talk as nonsense, noting that he's done work for Ford in the past. "The attempt to say we are an anti-car company is just crazy," Fenton says. "Are we guilty of doing a professional job for the clients so their campaigns get a lot of attention? Yes. But there's an attempt being made to portray us as the conspiracy masterminds out to damage the auto companies. That's ridiculous." Jason Vines, the former head of Ford PR who now runs Stratacomm's Detroit office, has pointed a conspiracy finger at Fenton. "I thought it was interesting to find out Fenton was doing both campaigns," he says. While the industry dismisses the PR attacks as extremist rhetoric, it has also had to address remarks by Jeffery Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. On January 14, Runge remarked that he wouldn't want a child of his driving an SUV because of safety concerns. The alliance contends that Runge wasn't looking at statistics from his own agency, says Shosteck. Still, it is taking the safety issue much more seriously than the other anti-SUV charges. It planned a Washington media briefing February 25 to discuss SUV safety, and the event coincided with hearings Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) planned to hold on the issue, Shosteck notes. "We feel it's imperative to correct the distortions. Our responsibility is to correct the misperceptions about the facts," he says. Going on the defensive Whether they see recent SUV attacks as extremist or uninformed, automakers are preparing PR defenses as well. That's a smart idea, say crisis communications experts and journalists who cover the auto industry. While some more extreme charges may fade, issues of safety and fuel economy will likely resurface, especially if a prolonged US-Iraq conflict sends oil prices upward, or if the economic slump has Americans questioning why they should buy such large, expensive vehicles. "It will be a constant drumbeat. It won't go away," says veteran auto journalist Paul Eisenstein, publisher of Toyota, for one, has already prepared backgrounders on its SUVs, explaining that they rank at or near the top of their categories in fuel efficiency and emission levels, says Mike Michaels, national manager of external communications. "I think there is a small group of SUV owners that needs to be reassured," says Michaels. Toyota also has information available for journalists and consumers on the safety technology it incorporates into its SUVs. Irv Miller, group VP of corporate communications with Toyota, says of recent SUV attacks, "We take everything that comes out seriously. We're aware of the attacks, but I don't think Toyota is necessarily a target." Steve Harris, VP of communications at GM, says of anti-SUV rhetoric, "We see absolutely nothing so far to indicate that it's having any impact on buying - but that doesn't mean we don't take it seriously." Harris has facts and figures on SUV fuel usage and safety available for whenever reporters need them. He also notes that GM has been talking publicly about incorporating hybrid gas-electric motor technology and fuel cells into future SUVs to address gas-usage concerns. At this year's Detroit auto show, GM "spoke of SUV hybrids. We have the capacity to build 1 million a year if the public wants them," Harris says. Land Rover makes only SUVs, so "we are watching the debate very closely," says Simon Sproule, VP of communications. "What we need to do as manufacturers is go out proactively, and make sure the facts are known. There's a tendency at the moment for sexy headlines. We need to make sure the facts are being played out with the media, as well as the hype." The industry's biggest challenge is reaching reporters who may be thrown onto the SUV story without industry knowledge, Sproule points out. The industry already has media lists to reach core auto writers. But as the SUV debate widens, many print and TV reporters who never wrote about cars may suddenly need information. Reaching them with the automaker's point of view could do a great deal to frame the SUV debate for a wider audience than those who read auto magazines and newspaper auto columns. Auto writer Eisenstein agrees on the need to reach all journalists covering the SUV issue, saying he's seen misreporting of SUV facts even in such prestigious publications as The New York Times. Crisis communications expert Jonathan Bernstein, CEO of Bernstein Communications, advises automakers to "walk that fine line between not making the situation bigger than it is, and not getting arrogant." Keeping an eye on the debate Thirty years ago, American automakers kept dismissing the notion that Americans wanted to drive smaller cars. Then came the Arab oil boycotts of the 1970s and government fuel-efficiency mandates, catching US automakers unprepared and allowing foreign producers like Toyota and Honda to become major forces in the US market. If automakers intend not to be caught by surprise again, they need to be closely monitoring anti-SUV sentiment. "If you assess damage only by headlines, that's the worst thing you can do," Bernstein counsels. "Automakers need to be very closely monitoring to see if there's some point where those issues are affecting sales." He advises monitoring not only media reports, but also auto websites, as well as conducting ongoing car-buyer surveys. A sudden change in consumer sentiment about SUVs should spur PR action, he cautions. "If the baseline answer today is no concerns about these issues in 98% of the cases, but in six months is down to 89%, they should act," Bernstein says of automakers. "They need to detect when this type of protest is getting to be an issue." Another arena to monitor is the courts, he notes. If lawsuits involving SUV safety start multiplying, automakers could be in for some rough coverage. "The safety issue is head and shoulders above the fuel issue. If the most popular form of vehicle in the US is a safety risk, that scares people," Bernstein says. Today, automakers say that by selling SUVs, they're just giving the public what it wants. But auto PR people need to stay on top of public opinion to make sure demand doesn't suddenly dry up because the automakers haven't been making their case.

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