By Peter Robinson
“Journalists are the enemy….do not talk to motoring writers.”
The instruction, from the communications department of a famous German car maker, was delivered verbally to its astonished designers. And almost immediately passed on to the ‘enemy’.
At new model time and (the now vanishing) motor shows, car makers are happy for us hacks to create heroes of their best and brightest design talents. But away from the carefully structured confines of a launch, when the communications/pr operatives are largely able to control events – who talks to whom and when – the last thing any car company encourages is casual contact that might lead to friendship between their key design, engineering and product planning staff and the apparently reviled muttering rotters. Even, occasionally, senior management.
On drive programmes and launches (at least pre-COVID and now again post-COVID), the corporate spin doctors – handsomely paid to extract the best possible exposure for its products, the company and its executives – ensure only the favoured A-team scribblers sit next to the most senior executives during dinner, often with a minder to interpret any indiscreet remarks. Unchaperoned meetings are verboten. Any known troublemakers (and there are always a few), hunting down a hot news story or rumour, almost inevitably find a comms-operative hovering nearby as they close in on their prey. One constant and clear objective is to prevent, or at least severely limit, any extra contact that could lead to friendship.
I was reminded of the ‘enemy’ instruction on a visit to Porsche during the early 2000s. After a long and wholly quotable conversation with a Weissach engineer concerning a wet-weather braking problem with the new 991 911, I asked for his business card – to understand his title and spell his name correctly – only to have it snatched away by the comms-person. ‘Our engineers do not hand out their business cards,’ I was forcefully informed. The innocent engineer could only look on, embarrassed.
My contact book, mobile phone and ancient business card holder carry the names, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of a score of Porsche people (and hundreds of other motoring contacts), but Zuffenhausen was policing an apparently long-standing policy that insists business cards are no longer to be exchanged. Can’t have journos ringing the engineers without first going through official channels, though what’s to prevent you dialling the switchboard and asking for the chap by name, or using the corporate e-mail formula address, isn’t explained. I did wonder how they get on when Japanese journalists visit Zuffenhausen, given the Japanese custom of exchange of cards is virtually mandatory.
You can still get into trouble, of course. Former Opel research and development boss and Holden CEO Peter Hanenberger is a mate. I once made the mistake, when Peter took over as head of R&D, of ringing his direct line in Russelsheim, and leaving my name with a woman I assumed was his assistant. Wrong. The temp quickly reported my indiscretion to the comms people. The PR boss at GM Europe in Zurich was immediately on the blower, demanding I never, ever, try the direct approach again. Didn’t work. A couple of years later, I enjoyed Peter and Ingrid’s hospitality in their Baden Baden home.
After I wrote about the Porsche incident in my Wheels magazine column, I received a terse letter from Anton Hunger, then Porsche’s director of Corporate Communications, and cc’d to Wiendelin Wiedeking, Porsche’s CEO, and the company’s two senior international comms people.
“I do not understand why you dealt with this topic in the form of an article in the public domain… I do not understand your motivation… we know people here talk with you as they do with other journalists and whether we like it or not.”
Hunger, who left Porsche shortly after Wiedeking resigned in 2009 when Porsche’s takeover bid for Volkswagen failed, now writes crime and political novels.
After this incident, I occasionally pondered if Hunger was aware that Wiedeking and I had a personal understanding: anything WW, who enjoyed a late evening cognac and cigar, told me at the bar after midnight was strictly off the record. Any shared confidences or back grounding was always respected.
In my experience, readers always relished any insights into the behind-the-scenes relationships between their favourite journalists and the motor industry. As Nora Ephron, the great American writer and film director, said, “Everything is copy.”
The best comms people guide journalists, pointing them in the right direction if asked about a story line, they feed stories to their best sources, arrange meetings and interviews up and down their organisations, sometimes even provide scoops, and carefully develop a trusting relationship with the motoring press and, crucial to this, within their own company. In my experience, the top comms people report directly to the CEO and not to the marketing or sales departments, whose understanding of the media is often totally inadequate. Those comms people who mislead, or worse, lie to the press are quickly found-out and treated with contempt. The best understand that journalists will report what they find and, with suitable confirmation, what they hear. Mostly, especially if their understanding of cars and the industry is considerable, the best cop criticism of their products.
Car launches, carefully planned and orchestrated, set out to impress the journalists and, today, the so-called ‘influencers’. In late 1990s, Audi’s International PR-people asked a few motoring journos for their ideal launch location. Based on experience, I suggested operating out of the excellent Munich airport hotel, just 70km south of Audi’s Ingolstadt HQ so highly convenient for the executives, designers, and engineers. Over the years I’d found several less than perfect roads in the area (not easy in Germany) for ride and handling evaluation, and the snappers enjoyed the variety of locations, while the access to the crucial product people was easily arranged.
“You’re not the only one suggesting the airport,” I was told. “But our boss, who always wants to impress the journalists, prefers to go to some posh new hotel in an exotic location, especially if it hasn’t been used by BMW or Mercedes.”
Which is why, during the winter, after a full day’s travel, we’d often find ourselves in the Canary Islands on boring roads we didn’t know. Or flying to California for a couple of near useless hours in a new model.
Despite communications departments’ best endeavours, any exercise in limiting friendships fails. I know of one hack who, a decade ago, spent virtually every Sunday morning on his Ducati in company with a senior VP of one of the Detroit Big Three. Others share holidays, weekends and often meals with friends from the other side, grown-ups enjoying the company of like-minded people without either side spilling the beans. What the comms people seemingly fail to appreciate is that discretion rules. Enemies? Hardly.