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RUST BUCKET

RUST BUCKET

The Corrosive Impact of OEM Sponsorships on Automotive Media

It was in the fall of 1993 that I joined the Texas Auto Writers Association (TAWA) and, not long after, headed from Dallas to San Antonio for TAWA’s inaugural Texas Truck Rodeo. A truck-specific faceoff forged in the creative – and slightly lubricated – minds of Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News automotive reporters, the event resonated with those writers covering it, the automotive OEMs participating and, at least anecdotally, the readers and viewers that would read or watch the reporting. Notably, trucks aren’t a recent obsession for Texas audiences; even 25 years ago, the appetite for pickup info was almost insatiable.

At that Rodeo, and the twenty-five since then, participating manufacturers paid an entry fee per vehicle. And with between fifty and seventy-five trucks, SUVs and crossovers entered, those vehicle fees underwrote the lodging and feeding of, typically, about 75 journalists. In most instances the TAWA member had to get himself or herself to the Rodeo, but once onsite there was nothing out of pocket. And that’s a good thing, ‘cause rarely is a TAWA member – especially the self-employed TAWA member – able to rely on an expense account.

Since then, having attended most of the Rodeos and TAWA’s more recently devised (and car-specific) Spring Roundup, I’ve slowly begun to see the conflict implicit when, as a reporter, you’re covering an industry while essentially hosted by that industry. Personally, I’ve never regarded my obligation to an automaker, as a reporter or commentator, to be anything beyond the ink or link; the OEM supplies the subject matter, feeds me if I’m offsite and houses me if I’m away from home, but grabbing the check doesn’t obligate me to write anything beyond what I see and feel. Regrettably, among those participating in those media events underwritten by automotive OEMs, this isn’t a universal stance.

That realization, while belated, came to light most recently after an e-mail exchange between myself and Audi’s press fleet manager. Given that the manager is relatively new to the position, in attempting to secure a press vehicle I introduced myself in the e-mail, referenced my outlets and included a link to work I had recently posted. Her e-mail response was a copy-and-paste reply, asking me for metrics that – if important – she could have easily retrieved on her own.

Having grown way tired over the last several years of copy-and-paste PR, I fired back a decidedly pointed e-mail, suggesting – in so many words – that she could keep her press cars; in point of fact, she could keep her entire PR department. I’ll admit my response could have been more gentile, but after a quarter century I’m inclined to embrace proactive PR, while quickly dismissing the frequently pathetic alternatives. I cc’d more senior Audi execs, and forwarded the correspondence to the president of the Washington Automotive Press Association, William West Hopper.

As those who’ve known Bill longer than I have known Bill would know, Hopper didn’t pick up the phone to me; rather, he picked up the phone to Audi. And while details of his conversation weren’t shared, from the later discussion I had with Bill and WAPA VP Carter MacLeod, my correspondence offended Audi, and while Bill seemingly assured Audi that my position wasn’t that of WAPA, both Bill and Carter believed I needed to apologize, also.

Since I felt – and continue to feel – that my critique was valid, I refused to apologize; I did, however, offer to resign my position as a WAPA board member. On the Thursday of the conversation my resignation was refused; instead, Hopper and MacLeod waited until that following weekend, convened a meeting of WAPA’s executive board, and voted to rescind my board membership. Now, having offered to resign you’d think I wouldn’t be bothered by that vote, but without notification of the meeting, nor any chance to present my side of the issue, I am bothered. And while the WAPA secretary was present, requests to obtain notes of that meeting are met with a repeated ‘no’.

Now, while this is an isolated incident in twenty-five years of involvement with organizations representing automotive media (I’m currently a member of TAWA, Chicago’s Midwest Automotive Media Association and LA’s Motor Press Guild), it’s telling when a board regards the goodwill of an automotive sponsor as more important than the standing of its journalist member. And at the Washington Automotive Press, despite having cash-on-hand that would bankroll any number of regional press events, one apparently shouldn’t antagonize in any way the Golden Goose, even if that goose – at least when considered through its PR proficiency – is decidedly less-than-golden.

From this (and again, with 25+ years of perspective) I’ve concluded it might be time to hit the reset button on those events combining automotive media with automotive manufacturers. At a lunch presentation, journalists should buy their own meal. And if there’s a multi-day event which necessarily involves lodging, either bill the attending members for those expenses or secure sponsorship from industries that may be automotive (the ‘good hands’ people at Allstate?), but whose products or services aren’t being judged. 

The line between objectivity and obsequiousness (look it up…I had to) can be a dangerously thin one. And if only a handful of consumers rely on what they’re reading before making the investment in a new car, truck or SUV, it’s incumbent on automotive journalists to report on new automotive product with objectivity. That’s more easily done if you’ve bought your own lunch, or feel reasonably comfortable in pissing off Audi.


Note from the Publisher

As the founder and publisher of txGarage, I thought it would be appropriate to piggyback on David’s Op-Ed here. First off, I don’t believe in censoring content from contributors here at txGarage; I give David (and anyone else) the freedom to vent their concerns, whether I agree with them personally or not.

That being said, I do for the most part agree with David’s overall premise here. I haven’t been in the industry nearly as long as David, but have also noticed many conflicts of interest. I started txGarage just over 11-years ago, but it took me a few years to join up with one of these press associations. I joined TAWA in 2011, mainly for access to the events, but also because at the time many automotive manufacturers told me I’d have more access to their products as a member. I was also one of the first members of TAWA whose content was 100% online, as they had just changed their bylaws to keep pace with the still-growing trend of online media. I am now a member of both the Texas Auto Writers Association and the Texas Motor Press Association, and don’t regret the decision to join either one. But in the time I have been a member I have seen and experienced a lot of questionable relationships and activities.

I have seen manufacturers influence association leadership into kicking members out of their ranks, I have seen manufacturers promising ads for votes, and I’ve personally been blacklisted from a certain manufacturer and have even received intimidating emails from that manufacturer because they didn’t agree with negative things I’ve had to say about their products. I know these things happen throughout the media, not just in the automotive space, and even more so with online influencers. I’ve always felt that it’s more important, and better for our bottom line, that we be upfront and honest about everything we publish, rather than pandering to a brand in exchange for access. So if there’s one takeaway you have after reading both David’s Op-Ed or these notes, just know that no one at txGarage is bought, and everything we publish is 100% genuine to help consumers be better informed.



David Boldt

Boldt, a contributor to outlets such as AutoTrader.com, Kelley Blue Book and Autoblog, brings to his laptop some forty years of experience in automotive retail, journalism and public relations. He is a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, Chicago's Midwest Automotive Media Association and L.A.'s Motor Press Guild. David is the Managing Editor of txGarage and the automotive contributor to Dallas' Katy Trail Weekly.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Martyn Haynes

    July 1, 2019 at 8:53 pm

    I know Mr. Boldt and whole-heartedly stand by him. He is an honorable person and speaks the truth.

    • Vince Muniga

      July 2, 2019 at 3:48 pm

      Having had 35 years in the automotive PR field, Mr. Boldt should know that the questions asked by the Auidi press fleet manager are standard. It’s a priveledge not a right to be on the press fleet list.

      Ask yourself, “who would I trust with a $50,000 vehicle…?”

      In 35 years, I saw it all. Journalists draining fuel tanks, retrieving press vehicles from the impound lot due to the driver/journalist arrested for dwi, unpaid tickets, cars run into ditches even a car returned with a drive loop welded to the floor! How about a navigation screen after a bed frame went through it.

      The list is long.

      Perhaps Mr. Boldt should suggest to all the various press associations that members pay all travel, lodging and meal expenses at the next press event they attend.

      I am sure the manufacturers won’t resist.

      Perhaps Mr. Boldt should become a travel writer, wine critic or work for an entertainment publication.

  2. David Holzman

    July 4, 2019 at 12:25 pm

    Thanks, Mr. Boldt, and TxGarage, for publishing his op-ed.

  3. Scott Reiss

    July 5, 2019 at 12:05 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story and viewpoint, David. And kudos for standing up for your beliefs and values. You bring up two very hot topics in auto content right now: how we generate our revenues and how we ensure access to all the brands our audiences want to see content about. On the first, journalism, unfortunately, has become a victim of the digital revolution. And sadly, OEMs ended the wholesale support of auto content as advertisers, moving their budgets to big ticket events like NFL, third party lead-generating sites and programmatic buying. That leaves the rest of us–From the NY Times to MotorTrend to TXGarage– scrambling for whatever financial support we can muster. This also means that the average journalist, even those employed by brand name outfits, is reliant on OEMs to host events the provide access to their products. I hope this changes; certainly without a common effort by all of us, it won’t.

    On your second point (and it isn’t unrelated to the first) PR teams at OEMs are smaller and have to produce more than ever; they, too, are victims of the shift in ad strategy. It used to be the only stat they had to worry about was column inches. Now they have to prove the value of their work, and largely without the resources of the ad department. So while it may be frustrating that the fleet manager demanded more information from you to justify a loan, she probably gets hundreds of these requests a month and probably wants to provide you a loan but she needs help to prove your value to her bosses.

    It may feel frustrating that 25 years in you still have to break down barriers to do your job. I’m with you; despite the inarguable buying power of women (women buy 65% of all cars and influence another 20% of car purchases) and the monthly reach of our outlet (500,000+ consumers a month) there are brands that STILL won’t return a phone call or email. Brands that, if it weren’t for their female customers, would be out of business.

    Our approach to fighting these battles has been to be proactive–to have our stats, links and social handles close at hand so we can share easily. We don’t win every battle, but slowly, we are increasing access to the models and brands that our audience most wants to see. For us, that’s the bullseye, and it should be for all auto journalists.

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