Safety first concern in off-road coverage

It's quite unusual for one story to set the tone for media coverage of a category for decades.

It's quite unusual for one story to set the tone for media coverage of a category for decades.

But a high-profile 1987 CBS 60 Minutes segment, which exposed ATV safety risks, is still negatively affecting manufacturers of dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) used for off-road recreation, who continue to attempt to shake off a long-held media perception that it's potentially a dangerous activity - especially for children.

"We do get covered, but it's mostly negative when you're talking about the general-interest media," points out Glenn Hansen, communications director at American Suzuki Motor Corp., which makes ATVs and dirt bikes. "Television historically has been negative since that CBS 60 Minutes segment."

The general media's reluctance to write about the off-road vehicle phenomenon hasn't had an impact on sales, though, as the number of ATVs sold in the US more than doubled in the past decade, totaling 890,000 in 2006 alone.

But PR professionals stress that the safety issue can make pitching the off-road recreation story a lot more difficult, especially when you move beyond specialty outlets like Off Road World.

"We'd much rather be working on a proactive rather than a reactive basis," explains Mike Mount, director of communications for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America (SVIA) and its sister organization, the All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute. "We offer free ATV training for any media member who wants to take it so they can write stories on what are the important things to know before you go out and ride. But far too often, there's some incident or mishap, and that's when we get the call."

Sean Alexander, Kawasaki account manager at Freeman/McCue Public Relations, suggests that the attitude of the media toward off-road vehicles may slowly be changing, especially on the lifestyle pages.

"We can get coverage in men's lifestyle [outlets], like your Stuff, Maxim, or Penthouse, as well as in places like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal," he says. "But you really have to refine your pitch for those outlets."

Alexander adds that you can pitch the new technology angles of off-road vehicles, especially the rise of new side-by-side ATVs that allow two people to ride at once.

Mount suggests that the real key for any ATV/off-road media strategy is to address the safety issue up front by getting journalists out on new vehicles.

"Once you get a reporter on an ATV and get them trained properly and are able to stress the importance of proper gear, it can be a much easier story to tell," he explains.

Pitching... Off-road vehicles

ATV accidents get an inordinate amount of coverage, so any pitch involving off-road vehicles needs to push the safety angle front and center

This is a "try it to believe it" category, so set up events where journalists can actually get trained and then ride an off-road vehicle to find out what makes it so appealing

Use a regional strategy. Target the Western recreation hot spots where demand for off-road vehicles is greater, and look to target other regions like the Midwest with more utilitarian-themed stories, such as ATVs as a work tool for farmers

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