The week between Christmas and the New Year is the least productive for automakers. It's when factories enter shutdown mode and the offices of automotive power that dot the Metro Detroit area become a loosely arranged snoozeville. Inside, if you're not planning for the Detroit Auto Show you're as far from Detroit as is possible on a coach ticket. If you have an active role to play, you're doing so in a bathrobe and Nascar slippers. But for bloggers this year, there was a staggering amount of work, as we all tried to match the buff mags' time-shift act (February in December? What are the odds?). That's why I interrupted Jason Vines, Chrysler Group's VP of Communications, as he was watching a movie at home on the Thursday before New Year's Eve. I had an embargo-related question for the chief-spinmeister at the 'merican side of the German-American hybrid. While on the subject, Vines told me he was "pissed off" at the number of embargoes that had gone to hell "by the buff books" and was interested in planning a "summit" to "figure out what to do differently next time around." I filed that away, too busy to think about meetings yet to be. Then, this past week, I heard Chrysler wasn't the only automaker interested in a "summit," or "meeting of the minds" or "dinner party," or whatever, to address press embargoes. The PR professionals at the largest power tower of them all, the Renaissance Center, were looking to get General Motors in on some of that summit action. Well now.
GM, following my embargo motto of "won't be the first, but never the third" with an idea, set up a meeting one of GM's PR staffers called an "embargo summit," and which Dee Allen, PR director for brands, product and a bunch of other stuff calls "a dinner," took place last week at the Rattlesnake Club, an upscale restaurant along the Detroit waterfront. Allen bills the meeting, which he organized along with GM's Terry Rhadigan, PR director of the Chevrolet brand and Chris Preuss, director of product and brand communications, as a listening "opportunity," a chance "to hear...how embargoes affected them." Allen went on to say that he doesn't "think there was anyone in the room who hasn't been in the business for at least 12 years." And he was right, the attendees were a who's who of the print automotive world — David E. Davis, Editor-In-Chief of the online magazine Winding Road; Gavin Conway, Editor-In-Chief of Automobile magazine; Matt DeLorenzo, Deputy Editor of Road & Track magazine; Wes Raynal, Executive Editor of AutoWeek magazine; the always friendly Mark Gillies, Executive Editor of Car and Driver magazine and last but not least, Mark Phelan, auto review guy for the Detroit Free Press.
To be fair, Davis is the one guy in the room who's actually embraced the internet age with gusto — creating an online-only magazine with a blog added in for kicks. With the exception of Davis (and possibly Phelan, who may have been there for the free shrimp), the rest of the press in attendance and acting as GM's sounding board on embargo issues were nothing more than an opportunity for members of the print establishment to attack the emerging online automotive media. And given what we've heard of the Luddite-like claims of some of the attendees, that's what it sounds like happened. We're told Car and Driver's Gillies was a dinner guest with some particularly virulent commentary. He's being quoted by one person in attendance as saying "no one goes to computers to research cars...the enthusiast magazines are still the authority when it comes to car information." While we'd have to admit that for many people who've never experienced the internet before, it represents an unknown and scary place. But recent numbers from a variety of research reports would seem to contraindicate Mr. Gillies. Heck, even AdAge is talking about how the buff books, and Gillies own publication, Car and Driver, are looking for ways to increase ad sales online. Maybe Gillies just doesn't know that because he's not involved with his website, as it's Mike Dushane who acts as the editor for CARandDRIVER.com.
So this was the group Dee Allen looked to in order "to get a feel for" the changing world of automotive journalism. Well, why wouldn't he look to them — for the most part, it was a safe group for him to bring together. As he said before, not a one of them had "less than 12 years in the industry." The group didn't include folks from places like The Detroit News or The New York Times, both of whom ran articles before the show lamenting embargo breaks. It also didn't include sites like Autoblog, which saw millions of page views of traffic during the Detroit Auto Show. These were not only automotive consumers, but also enthusiasts.
As US subscription numbers for print magazines in general continue to fall (source: Magazine Publishers of America; Total Circ. 2000-2005), the one segment of the auto enthusiast universe that's been increasing in size every day is the online enthusiast community. And unfortunately for General Motors, save the one token merger of the print and digital world, there was no one there able to provide some real commentary on what the online auto enthusiast community is looking for. There wasn't an outlet there who could advocate for the people searching for auto content online and reading sites like ours every day. Although I'd hate to say this, it would appear GM just doesn't care about people who are online as much as they care about protecting their established methods of shoveling out "exclusives" in the form of PR pictures and details — via the buff books.
Once again, GM is taking the easy route instead of being bold and establishing their own path. We'll just wait and see what happens as other companies like DaimlerChrysler and Ford, two companies burned by the embargo game, make their decisions about the direction they'd like to move. I just received the Chrysler Group embargo materials site via e-mail on Friday, so it looks as though Vines is still biding his time on their own "conversation." But for now at least at one company — the world's biggest automaker — the traditional automotive press still rule, and it would seem that GM could care less about the fact that you're even here reading this.