Why motor industry PR needs less pity

Can the US auto industry really complain that the public don’t understand it – after all the resources it has invested in PR and marketing over the past century?

Monty Scott who heads up social media at Ford thinks so (thanks to Andrew Arnold for link), in his post: “how you can use social media to help the U.S. auto industry” .  He claims “our story hasn’t had the chance to be fully (and fairly) told yet.”

Steven J Harris, Vice President, Global Communications, General Motors Corporation, similarly stated (in his acceptance remarks for the Alexander Hamilton Medal) that the US auto industry didn’t deserve the PR it is getting:

…my perspective is that those writers and commentators (criticising the industry) have an incomplete and inaccurate view of the importance and impact of the U.S. auto industry on this nation’s health.

Monty writes an interesting post in which he lays out various plus points for Ford in the current situation – and the comments seem to back up his view that such information is largely unknown.

I have worked in the UK motor industry for nearly two decades, and have a reasonable knowledge of its history which includes many periods of boom and bust.  I don’t believe any company has a given right to exist, and as with many European car companies before them, it is not inevitable that one of the US Big 3 won’t go under.

Monty admits being new to the industry and feels its current woes all “happened in less than one fiscal quarter” – that seems naive as the US auto industry in particular has had this crisis coming at it for decades.

Not all the problems are of its own making – such as the huge commitments to healthcare for former employees which are a major burden on the business.

Of course, for many decades, industrial problems and money worries have beset the motor industry – in the UK, poor management and bolshy unions undoubtedly led to the demise of many great motoring names.  The Big 3 in the US have had similar internally-generated problems – with the arrogance of management evident in last week’s private jets to Washington debacles.

But despite all the investment in environmental and safety technology in Monty’s rhetoric – and Ford isn’t alone in such progress – the US (and European) auto industry hasn’t conveyed a sense of genuine corporate citizenship.

Any environmental initiatives in the US market have been offset by fighting legislation to improve emissions standards, to protect, what was until now, a highly profitable SUV (4×4 and light truck) market.  Monty states this strategy was about “giving people exactly what they demanded in times of cheap gas” – but that doesn’t tally with the environmental message that the US auto makers have been touting for the last decade.

Marketers in the motor industry have only recently realised the power of “green” – I remember having arguments with a marketing director in the late 1980s who wasn’t interested in promoting a turbo-diesel Peugeot 205 which delivered the performance of a hot hatch but returned superior fuel economy and emissions (don’t get me started on the diesel argument – I will win!).  Even Car magazine believed me with a comparison test giving a stunning win to our stylish garçon over Ford’s Fiesta Essex boy model.

Advances in technology have often been countered by lobbying activities to prevent tougher crash standards and a lack of willingness to transfer ideas into vehicles.  For example, Monty’s automatic connection to emergency services and other such advances were in the Prometheus project involving major European car companies in the early 1990s – I know, because I took media to trial the inventions.

Like Monty, I have met a huge number of very good people in the motor industry who are genuinely committed to ensuring its responsible sustainability – but their efforts have been offset by an almost mad focus on increasing sales volumes at all costs.  This has to change – shifting the metal can no longer be the major priority.

Also like Monty, I remain optimistic about the motor industry, but I don’t blame the media, politicians or the public for not understanding its position.  The focus of the industry has always been on the shiny new models – with hype over reality the root of its poor reputation from the beginning.

Until the last 20 years or so, quality for US and European vehicles was not a priority – and it took the threat from the Japanese manufacturers to jolt it up the agenda.  Similarly, the industry has been keener to talk about new power sources, including electric vehicles, rather than get them on the roads.  Not surprising perhaps that Toyota and Honda were the first to bring viable models to market.

Sales approaches have been heavy-handed, with a product-led approach rather than reflecting what consumers need.  Did we really all want dozens of cup holders in our cars?

I appreciate Monty’s request for his readers to be informed, make up their own mind, but he hopes, promote his message.

I’m for a more radical rethink of the industry’s communications.  If we expect people to be informed about our business, then lets be more open and honest.

Let’s stop hyping up the vehicles with adverts that are all gloss and little substance.  Modern cars are good and comparably they are cheaper than a decade ago (I won’t go into how the UK industry in particular came kicking and screaming to this though).  However, a new vehicle is still an expensive purchase for most people, and one which is depreciating enormously from the minute you drive off the forecourt.  That fact alone doesn’t generate trust.

What can the industry do to maintain the residual value of our vehicles?  How can they enable us to update rather than replace with new and improved features?  These are just some of the questions that I would like to see addressed.

I feel there is little in Monty’s post that doesn’t read like it is from a carefully crafted company pitch – indeed, I wrote many of the same proven claims in a Ford of Europe Environmental press pack several years ago.

Of course, companies should put forward their best points – but it is time that the industry acknowledged its past and proves that its has genuinely changed.  Let’s help customers and other publics discover the truth for themselves by cutting back on the rhetoric and using more human voices in communications.

Let’s ensure PR is viewed as more than part of marketing (sadly I see many motor companies no longer have a PR director with this function now a lowly report into a marketing manager or director).  There is no need for the vast sums spent on car adverts that few can recall let alone say influences their decisions to purchase – and likewise for the increasingly expensive car showrooms, the cost of which must find its way onto the ticket price.

I’d like to see much more concern about customers – not just as targets to buy new models but as long-term owners facing real world problems.  Can’t the industry be as inventive in helping them solve these issues as it is in constantly “improving” new models?

The industry needs to really care about its own reputation – and that means collectively, not in the point scoring that is all too evident between auto companies.

Let’s stop lobbying and work with governments to come to more sensible decisions on future progress – and let’s talk genuinely about what we are able to invest and improve and offer real deliverables not just promises.

I don’t think we will readily give up motoring and society needs personal and other forms of road transport.  So it needs a viable, sustainable and honest motor industry.

That is a message that the PR and marketing folk – as well as all their publics should be informed about.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.