Monday, January 10, 2005

'Vette Coup or Snafu?

Musings from my colleague Randy Wambold...

I'm always curious about the lives of PR people in industries other than tech. Are their day-to-day jobs roughly analogous to mine? Or is, say, PR for the automobile industry so different from tech PR that it might as well be a different profession?

An article in the Wall Street Journal on Friday entitled "GM's AWOL Corvette; How Car Maker Lost Control Of Its New Model's Rollout Shows Power of Web Fan Sites" shed light on this question. (WSJ.com is a paid subscription site so I can't link to it, but those of you with access will find it on-line.)

The article concerns the announcement of the new Corvette Z06. GM's communications planned to announce the car at the Detroit auto show this week. They placed media under embargoes accordingly. Trouble is, unauthorized photos of the car began appearing a couple of months ago. GM tried to stem the distribution, but as we know in this age, once the chain reaction gets started, it's near impossible to stop it. The unspoken question of the Journal article seems to me to be whether the actual announcement next week won't be a bit of a yawner coming on the heels of all the pre-announcement coverage.

I had several observations about this story from the perspective of a tech PR professional:
  • Like in tech PR, automotive industry PR has been reliant on media embargoes as a form of message control.
  • Like in tech PR, broken embargoes are a constant occurrence, and what to do about them a constant issue.
  • Like in tech PR, the embargo's effectiveness -- and to some extent its feasibility even -- in our current age is very much in question. New ways of thinking about communicating a message to the marketplace are called for. "The Z06 snafu is a high-profile illustration of how Detroit's decades-old tactics for generating buzz around a new model don't always mesh with the realities of the digital media universe," the article notes.
  • A reaction to an unplanned media event is sometimes as important as the event itself. After the photos began appearing, GM chose to try to finger the culprits and limit the "damage," by means that some interpreted as heavy-handed. This appears to have exacerbated the situation, alienating some of GM's most loyal customers ("GM should probably find a better use of their time than p-----g off current and future Corvette owners," the article quoted one fan group Web site manager as saying.)
Easy for me to say as a Monday morning quarterback, but perhaps if GM had embraced and tried to leverage the interest the digital community was showing in the new Corvette, this might have been a PR coup rather than a PR snafu.

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