Gethin Bradley – a legend of motor industry PR

Gethin_portraitA very dear friend, legendary MIPAA honorary life president, and my avuncular guardian angel has sadly died.

Imagine Mad Men focused on public relations and transferred to swinging London of the 1960s and at its centre would be Gethin Bradley.  No-one understood the relationship approach to our occupation better.  No-one was more passionate about motor industry PR.  No-one from his generation was as enthusiastic about modern developments in the field (he read this blog without fail and loved that MIPAA had introduced so many members to social media).  No-one had more friends.  No-one was ever more hospitable, kind and generous.  I miss him so much already.

We even coined a verb – to be Gethined – defined as that feeling when you try to get up from a good lunch to find that your wine glass had been filled rather more often than you’d appreciated.  That PR skill is no longer required in these less alcohol fuelled days.  But I’m sure it will be welcomed on his heavenly cloud.

Gethin2There are so many stories that Gethin’s friends and former colleagues could, and will, tell as they hear the news and recall the good times.  None made him happier than talking about the 1954 Oxford and Cambridge Trans Africa Expedition he was involved in whilst a student, which led him into public relations.  I probably heard his stories a hundred times each, but never minded, because he was a raconteur and he stimulated my interest in the history of public relations.

Over the past decade or so, I gradually took over Gethin’s role as general secretary of MIPAA – but he was always there by phone, email or when I made the trips to Kent after the appearance of Herbert, his cancerous tumour.

Gethin1

Wherever he went when he was still mobile, people knew his name.  He was the epitome of the sociable public relations man.  It was a job that he loved.  But he was more than the life and soul that he appeared to be on the outside.  He was intelligent, informed, the son of an amazingly strong woman of whom he was phenomenally proud – as he was of his children and grandchildren.

More than anything, one word sums up Gethin – and that is, friend.  His passing is truly the end of an era.

In praise of paper free reading

clip_image002Confession time – I am a bibliophile; a “bookworm” since the age of three when my mother taught me to read.  There are piles of books all over my house – my dream would be to have my own library where my precious collection falls easy to hand instead of being here somewhere, if only I can remember where.

However, I’m increasingly abandoning the delights of traditional books in favour of multi-media options, notably digital books via iBooks and Amazon Kindle online stores and audiobooks (more for in-car listening, but also on the iPad and other devices).

At present, I find business/PR books available using these media to be rather disappointing (few available and often badly read audio versions) – although the ability to load pdf documents onto the iPad is a great support for the masses of academic journal articles I need to read for my PhD.

But it is the novel that has transferred best onto my iPad and in-car system.  I love being able to download a new book and flick-read through the pages.  Likewise, a long journey (I’ve just returned from visiting my mum in the Pyrenees which is a 12 hour drive in each direction) is made much more pleasurable when listening to a top actor telling me an engaging story.

However, the prices charged for both digital and audio books are outrageous – often more than buying the “real” book would cost.  I tend to buy CD-versions of audio books, as it isn’t much cheaper to download them and save onto CDs myself. 

Another gripe is that there is little evidence of integrating or maximising the potential of digital media yet.  I’d love my ebooks to include photographs (which are often in the print but not the digital version), even video and music/sound where appropriate.

When travelling, avoiding packing heavy books is a great advantage – although the iPad did complain about getting overheated a few times (but its screen was easier to read in the sun than my laptop).  A print book is also better for reading during flight take-off/landing and in the bath of course.

I also find that listening to a good book actually makes me want to read the print version – so I’m not sure this new habit is replacing my old one either.  This trip I listened to the series of Shardlake Tudor stories written by C.J. Sansom.  So far, I’ve enjoyed Dissolution, Dark Fire and Sovereign with Revelation to follow on my next four hour journey.  The box set was recommended by the sales assistant in Waterstone‘s and they are brilliantly read by Anton Lesser.  With Amazon offering the paperbacks at £4 each can I resist re-reading them though?  And there’s the 5th book, Heartstone, due out on 2 September – so easy to pre-order with the others with 1-Click!

But, why can’t I buy a full set, so I can have the digital, audio and print book as a single package?  Is this verging on bibliomania?  Am I en route for the madness of Don Quixote?

PR people need cat food at the top table

image Leo Bottary makes an interesting point in his post: The Kid’s Table regarding PR people who moan about not being taken seriously – challenging them to grow up and engage in more adult dialogue.

However, I’m not convinced that the “adult dialogue” about PR can be found in the Stockholm Accords which have been robustly interrogated by Paul Seaman.  These seek:

to articulate and establish the role of public relations in the “communicative organization” within a fast-evolving digital and value-network society

What bothers me about both types of “reflection” on public relations is that they portray a particular viewpoint of PR as deserving to be at the “top table” as a goal in itself.  I am reminded of Betteke van Ruler’s paper: Are PR Pros From Venus and Scholars From Mars?

This notes that the view of PR as a profession amongst academics and associations is largely about knowledge and status, whilst practitioners focus on competition and personality.  The result of which is often muddle and a lack of external perception of PR as professional, let alone a profession.

Complaining publicly about your lot – or seeking to create a tidy box in which to define the role of PR, seem to me of little  value for those working in public relations – or those who employ our services.

If you want to be treated as a professional practitioner, then behave like one – but don’t take yourself so seriously that you forget the real world is dynamic, complicated and messy.

Of course, it is important for senior PR practitioners to be respected sufficiently to deliver strategic advice based on critical reflection of emerging issues and established relationships with key stakeholders, ensuring effective reputation management.

But it is equally important for PR practitioners to be competent professionals in everything they do.

The recent Icelandic volcanic ash presented a challenge to many PR practitioners – and it was great to read journalist Richard Aucock’s post: BMW PR shows professionalism of industry.

I was equally impressed reading the column in the Daily Mirror: One question left… Howe the hell did Eddie achieve promotion with Bournemouth? This praises the PR “boss” at the Football Club – Niall Malone – who is a 2nd year undergraduate PR student at  Bournemouth University.

Which brings me to the cat food – and Simon’s Cat.  Anyone who has owned or knows a cat recognises the behaviour that Simon Tofield has captured in his amusing cartoons.  But cats don’t need definitions of what they are about or to go to brand awareness courses to reflect “best practice” cat behaviour.

For me, the best PR people don’t spend their time defining the profession or worrying about how to get to the top table.  I’m certainly not knocking gaining a qualification – but that means nothing without the ability to practice public relations.  And practice without clarity of rationale behind what you are doing is equally pointless.

I don’t know who first coined the phrase “we’re not human doings, we’re human beings” – but that applies to public relations in my view.  You don’t do professional PR, you need to be a professional PR – and if that means eating cat food…

Another world of PR?

Gethin Bradley, who is a pioneer of motor industry PR sent me an email recently with a link to British Pathe video. This offers a glimpse at another world – employees celebrating 25 years with Rover, a presentation of a futuristic vehicle to the Science Museum and a media launch for a new Land Rover.

In many ways this looks very different from modern PR practice – much slower pace for the company and the media, for example. But in other ways, the activities are recognisable as the very things that practitioners continue to arrange today.

There may be fewer employees today reaching a quarter of a century with one employer – let alone a family of four brothers as in the newsreel. The museum piece would feature zero emissions and other environmental benefits. And the media launch? Well, there’s less smoking and journalists aren’t so formally dressed today!

But an attention to detail is evident – and it is notable that senior executives of the company are supporting each of the activities. That meant recognising the importance of employee loyalty, reaching a wider public, and the influential role of the media.

The film’s conclusion about Rover being synonymous with motor engineering may sound a little like “spin” with the benefit of hindsight, but this is a fascinating glimpse at how the modern world of PR owes much to those early pioneers.

Toyota, public relations and product recalls

image Never has so much public relations advice been given, totally free of charge, to a company as we’re seeing directed at Toyota following its global recall programme.

As with Tiger Woods late last year, the predicable crisis management, and online communications mantra is spouted: be open, tell all, tell it now.  “Tweet, tweet, tweet” because social media is the solution to every and any situation facing any brand – supposedly. 

Numerous “PR experts” are cited slating Toyota’s PR actions – as one “specialist” tells Reuters:

“People want to see a company take full responsibility, be empathic to the victims and their families and be in control by outlining the problem and how they intend to solve it. They also expect the CEO doing all this,”

The media seem to want more as the Guardian berates Akio Toyoda for his recent apology: “there were no tears, no lingering semi-prostration or pleas for forgiveness”.  It seems nothing short of high level ritual suicide will satisfy some of the commentators.

Yes, Toyota has a major reputational problem to manage, it has to investigate its processes and procedures, and needs to demonstrate that if quality really is a core value, it must be reinstated as its number one priority.  I say, “reinstated”, because I used to work in PR at Toyota GB in the early 1990s and saw how the Japanese parent company put quality at the heart of the business.

There are also questions for every organisation operating on a global platform, where situations such as a standard car recall can escalate to be a lead news item – stealing the headlines away from the major humanitarian disaster in Haiti.

What those issuing demands for immediate explanations and apologies seem not to understand is that life, and the problems it throws up, are not that simple to resolve.

Cars operate virtue of a complicated combination of mechanical, electronic and human actions.  They are driven in a wide variety of situations, often have multiple owners over their lifetime, and probably don’t receive regular daily/weekly safety checks or routine servicing. 

Things will go wrong – that’s true of even simple products.  There’s the story that GM issued a press release in response to a boast by Bill Gates about computer technology – highlighting what would happen if a car was like a computer.  Cars are largely driven by technology today – and GM’s comparisons may not be as far-fetched as we’d like.

The reality in organisations such as Toyota is that the PR people are not to blame for originating product-related issues and crises.  Their role in a product recall is normally quite small – as the issue is rightly addressed direct with customers via bodies such as VOSA and the DVLA in the UK. 

It should also be remembered that most recalls are precautionary – that something could happen, not that it definitely will.  Fire, failing brakes, “unintended acceleration” are all scary – but we are most at risk from our own driving behaviour or those of others, every time we venture on the roads. Even if a problem does occur, the likelihood is that you will be able to stop and get help – which makes knowing what to do in crisis situations something of vital importance to every driver. 

Of course, the issue with cars is that a failure can be a life or death situation – and the necessity for a recall needs to be recognised and undertaken with effective monitoring and reporting systems.  Communications between car retailers, their service departments, company customer relations, technical functions and production facilities need to enable issues to be identified early.

Then, solutions need to be found – which isn’t always easy.  Sometimes finding a fault is like an episode of House – it is a matter of trial and guesswork if onboard computer “blackbox” systems do not produce the answers and there is no obvious mechanical cause.

When a solution is identified, it needs to be implemented in terms of manufacturing components or developing software updates.  Then, the solution needs to be communicated (in a host of languages), parts shipped, training undertaken and work scheduled as and when it suits the customer. 

This is not like removing cases of Tylenol from a few chemist shelves (and check the actual reports of how long that really took). 

Whilst this process is going on, the PR people are fielding media questions (as well as being pro-active), liasing with colleagues internally and around the globe, advising executives, marketing and others on how and what to communicate – which is a constantly moving matter.

Meanwhile the media are reporting individual customer cases of problems in a “we told them so” manner, after calling for viewers and readers to contact them with their stories (which seem to be then accepted at face value).  Many of these are probably unrelated to the actual issue, but each needs the PR team to investigate and respond.

Communications with other stakeholders – from employees to shareholders, politicians to motoring groups, insurance companies to suppliers – need to be co-ordinated, updated and reported so that feedback is used as part of the ongoing process of being clear about what is happening and what needs to be done.

Existing PR plans and everyday tasks may still need to be implemented – or sidelined – as everyone works round the clock to do the best they can in managing the crisis. 

It is easy to call Toyota’s woes a PR disaster, nightmare, or similar insult of the hard-working public relations team who are doing their best with what they know and can do or say (remember there are legal constraints to consider).

It is easy to call for more social media engagement – ignoring the fact that Toyota (here in the UK) is using a blog (from the front page of its main website) as well as Twitter. Its staff may not be leaving comments in response to every post or reTweet – but in terms of priorities, when you’ve a small team and only 24 hours in the day, mainstream media reaches more viewers and readers, particularly those who are Toyota customers.

I’m not saying that Toyota couldn’t have done things better – and it will undoubtedly learn from this experience now and when there’s time to reflect.  But the classic ideas – or is that ideals? – on how to manage an emerging crisis are, as Eric Denzenhall says, a ridiculous cliche.

This is a complex world for PR management, as those such as Gilpin and Murphy have observed, noting a need to understand the “changeable and complex nature of crises” and how to operate within the “real-world environment of confusion, unforeseen events, and missing information”.

The PR world would do better to understand that there are no simplistic responses to issues and crisis management – and help our publics to realise that we live in a (post-modernist) world where things go wrong, where risks are a fact of life. 

It is ironic that the value of high profile brands is that they indicate that we can trust them.  This also means that when things go wrong, these organisations act to resolve problems.  Car companies routinely undertake recalls – even with old and worn vehicles – and implement rectifications often without charge to customers (including those who were not the original purchaser).

They are obligated to do so for legal reasons – as well as the pressures of falling share prices, declining sales and long-lasting damage to a hard-earned reputation, and a sense of corporate responsibility. 

And, let’s not forget that Toyota built its reputation on the basis of kaizen (continuous improvement) as part of the Toyota Way.   It needs to reflect its Gemba attitude and truly embrace genchi genbutsu as Mr Toyoda has promised.

I really hope that as Toyota’s reputation was built on solid foundations, it will recognise the necessity of this authentic approach and not follow the superficial “PR advice” in addressing the current crisis.  The only values that count are those that are worth protecting, even when that hurts.

Product promotion and public relations

The UK government proposal to allow commercial product placement in television programmes means this strategy is likely to migrate finally from the PR department, at least in motor manufacturers, into the marketing and media buying function.

Despite claims made in PR Week that this move is a new opportunity for public relations, I believe the reverse to be the case.

image Back in 1962, the entire Ford Cortina Mark 1 press fleet was loaned to the production company of the “Carry on Cabby” movie.  The story is that BMC turned down a request to use its models – and was equally unaware of the huge publicity value of placing the original Mini in the Italian Job, demanding trade or retail price for supplying cars.

Of course, the PR approach which involved building relationships and mutual benefit (we get our car shown and the production company saves money) had its downsides.  An old friend of mine tells a tale of schmoozing at Pinewood Studios to get a car placed in a top film, only to see it parked briefly at the side of the road in a “blink and miss it” scene.

I remember also discussing the merits of loaning a car to Coronation Street as it would be seen as the vehicle responsible for killing a popular character.  As the accident wasn’t the fault of the car concerned (or its driver) and the audience was huge, we agreed to the request.

Already the practice of product placement is much more commercialised.  Whether that’s BMW muscling in on the Aston Martin turf that is James Bond – or Ford’s tie in with American Idol (said to cost $78m a year).

A full on marketing machine is now behind such placements.  When the company is directly paying for exposure, a more hard-nosed relationship is negotiated.  This means the product gets big billing and dedicated air time.

When you look at this from the company and production company perspectives, allowing the extension of product placement into UK commercial television makes sense.  The public can’t skip the in-programme advert, and revenues are generated to replace the lost advertising income that has resulted from this practice.

But from the public perspective, such “endorsement” is clunky and unbelievable.  Ford’s music videos in Idol have been criticised – although personally, I think the large Coke glasses in front of the judges are just as awkward.  In the UK, repeats of the show, we’ve been spared the Ford videos, and the Coke logo has been blurred (but is still recognisable).

Of course, the situation here where labels are hidden or fictional brands created is an equally artificial device.  So, should the Rovers Return pub in Coronation Street become Wetherspoon‘s if the money is right?

And, what happens to the baddies if brands don’t want to be associated with them?  Is it a matter that if you don’t pay, your car ends up being the villains’ wheels?  In 24: Redemption, the good guys drive Hyundai vehicles (the sponsors) and the bad ‘uns are in Fords.

In reality, the world if full of competing brands – but in the product placement world that is impossible.  All Transformers become GM cars, Audis are the future according to I Robot, and so on.

As I wrote recently at PR Conversations, it is a real challenge for PR that the media is no longer totally “free to play”.   Advertising money used to enable editorial decisions to be made on the basis of securing the right product for a scene (in the case of cars) rather than the one that would pay the most.

Television and the movie business are undoubtedly the poorer for such blatant commercialisation.  So, perhaps it is right for PR to relinquish this promotional aspect to the marketing function entirely and focus instead on reputation management matters.

Mind you, when it comes to a great match, such as James Bond and Aston Martin (although his preference in literature was for a Bentley), doesn’t the placement truly reflect the reputation of both brands?

Motoring Writers make YouTube music video with Stefanie Hertel

Some members of the Guild of Motoring Writers – accompanied by a few manufacturer PR representatives – recently went on the Guild Classic driving event to Germany.  I’m not sure of the background, but somehow this led to a YouTube music video with Stefanie Hertel, an Alpine folk singer – which is apparently about the virtues of men.

The Guild’s latest edition of it newsletter, Update, does describe this as “just one in a series of surreal happenings on the BMW Guild Euro Classic” as the attendees “somehow got caught up in the filming of a Kitsch music-cum- travelogue programme for German TV.”

The choreography of the dads’ dancing scene at the end is a classic in itself – even funnier when you know the participants.  Is this positive PR or good publicity for the Guild?  Well word of the video is moving faster than a Ferrari’s acceleration among MIPAA members and motoring journalists, so in these tough times for the industry, it’s definitely giving us all a laugh.