FOUNTAIN VALLEY, CA: Struggling automaker Mitsubishi Motors North America has thrown its PR business up for review, and has issued an official RFP.
The number of agencies pitching is undisclosed, but director of corporate communications Dan Irvin said, "It's not a large number." Incumbent AOR Stratacomm is defending the business in the review, but would not comment for this story.
Irvin said the company expects to make a decision in the next 45 days.
This is Mitsubishi's first PR agency review since 1999. It had worked with Fleishman-Hillard up until 18 months ago when it switched without an external review to Stratacomm, which is owned by Fleishman, to gain greater depth of auto experience from Stratacomm's Detroit staff.
Irvin told PRWeek the review in no way reflects any unhappiness with the job Stratacomm has done.
"We periodically review suppliers in a lot of different areas, and this is one of them," he explained.
While Mitsubishi has suffered declining sales, Irvin said PR outreach would not significantly change from what the company had been doing up until now. The company has focused PR efforts on promoting products, not responding to negative press about the company's woes.
"I wouldn't say that we are looking at a new direction," he said. "I'm sure that the direction will be determined with the help of the agency, whether that's Stratacomm or a different agency after we're finished with this process."
And while other auto manufacturers have boosted their nontraditional marketing output, Irvin also added that there were no plans to seek an agency with a particular specialty, such as event or buzz marketing. Instead, he added, the team was seeking more of a generalist agency "that can handle the full range of PR activities."
Last year, amid media buzz about the company's meager $25 million ad budget for the Eclipse launch, PR focused on dealer relations. "Our key audiences are our dealers and our employees," said Dottie Diemer at the time. She was then VP of corporate communications, a post she left last year.
The company's then director of advertising, Kevin Meyer, who wanted to edge the message back toward its prior "Wake up and Drive" theme, quit after the $25 million budget - about a fourth of what most car marketers devote to a launch - was tabled.
Mitsubishi, which has seen its North American market share dwindle in the past three years amid executive and ad agency shuffling, is in the midst of a limited TV and PR push for the Eclipse Spider, launched in May. The car is a rag-top version of last year's completely redesigned Eclipse. Irvin said another major push is planned this fall for the totally redesigned Outlander SUV and that PR will play a big role in that effort.
The company sold only 123,995 vehicles in the US last year, a 25% drop from 2004. As a point of comparison, the company sold 80,000 of its Galant sedans alone in 2003.
In May, however, the company sold 11,821 units, a 3.9% increase as compared to May 2005 sales of 11,380.
Todd Turner, president of auto consultancy Car Concepts, pegs Mitsubishi's US market share at less than 2%.
Last year's midsize pickup, Raider, launched in the fall, shoehorned into an already crammed market, and the niche-market Eclipse sport coupe, were both unable to build big chunks of market share.
Gordon Wangers, president of automotive marketing consultant AMCI Detroit, pointed out that the company - which would not confirm how many PR people it has on staff - is facing a crisis communications issue because the perception, warranted or not, is that the company is not long for this market.
"I'm afraid to say the conventional wisdom is not if, but when," said Wangers. "I would say that on some level, industry and opinion-leader PR would be more important than consumer PR to convince the world it is not going out of business. Consumer PR is useful for [Mitsubishi] precisely because it has such limited marketing dollars; it might be smarter to use PR on targeted and experiential marketing because it can't afford presence in mass media."