Public Relations Representative Roundtable: Raise All Ships
Branding is everywhere in motorsports. Driver suits, crew uniforms, race transporters and even walls and fences are decked out every race event with company logos. Press releases, social media, and press conferences are a part of the daily routine at these events, conveying the message brought to you, the audience, from a brand. Every brand has a desired image and a way they would like it to be communicated to the public. A race car driver is their own brand, as is every race team, sponsor, manufacturer and sanctioning body.
Many of these entities hire public relations representatives to oversee how the brand gets to the public and then maintain, develop and nurture that connection. As PR Representatives, it’s our job to assist our clients with their brand maintenance through behind the scenes work, media bookings, schedule keeping, consulting, writing, booking, distribution, and social media management, among many other things.
So how does it work when you have driver PR representatives working with team, manufacturer sponsor, and race series representatives all in the same circle? Does the environment get fiercely competitive with everyone competing for control of the spotlight? Or can everyone find a flow that benefits all of the clients and reps?
Earlier this season, I sat down with five other public relations representatives at a TUDOR United SportsCar Championship event for a PR representative roundtable. Driver, Team, Manufacturer: Most, if not all of us in the group have represented at least two of the three. The conversation that followed offered interesting insight and discussion from industry professionals based on their experiences over the years. I hope this will be the first of many PR Roundtables.
Matt Cleary: founder of Sunday Group Management, which provides social media consulting and media relations support for driver, team, and manufacturer clients in IMSA, NASCAR, and Verizon IndyCar Series competition including Action Express Racing, Michael Shank Racing, Justin Wilson, and Rising Star Racing.
Diane Swintal: Public Relations Manager, DeltaWing Racing Cars.
Tom Moore: President of Darkhorse Autosport, Inc. managing the press programs for Porsche Cars North America’s factory Porsche 911 RSRs, drivers Bryan Sellers and Jimmy Kite as well as Lux Performance Group and Premier SportsCar Service among others.
Ryan Smith: Trackside Communications Representative, Chevrolet Racing
Efrain Olivares: Account Manager, Ferrari Motorsports at Brandware PR
Kelly Brouillet: President of KBru Communications, providing public relations and social media consulting and management to motorsport related companies and drivers and teams in the TUDOR Championship, Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, USF2000 and Pirelli World Challenge.
What is the Difference Between a Team, Driver or Manufacturer Public Relations Representative?
Matt: I would say it’s the same in that your ambition is to represent the driver/team in the best eye possible. The focus is having purely just the driver focus. I don’t think there’s any difference in terms of how you approach it. I just think it’s different in terms in of what that list is, and how to accomplish that. For example from a team point of view, you’ll have a lot of what you are given though the sanctioning body, track, and local media who’s already covered them before. I think that the funnel is narrower for driver representative, so I would say you have an advantage from that point of view as a team representative.
Diane: There’s definitely a relationship between the team representative, the sanctioning body and the track PR staff. Unless you’ve been coming to a certain market for a long time, the track knows what local media will be interested in your story and they’re a great asset. The same goes for the sanctioning body. And the team PR rep has that same driver focus, but there’s another layer to it. The drivers are the face of your team, but you’re also promoting the team itself. You also have to make sure you stay on message, especially if you’re in a corporate structure with several entities contributing to a specific message.
Kelly: And when you’re in a corporate structure, most people don’t understand how little of that message is in the hands of the reps or the corporation. That’s why a lot of team releases seem so sugar coated or politically correct, because some companies tend to be more worried about the brand than the straight facts of what happened. When you represent a corporation, there are usually pages of words and phrases, or tones that you aren’t allowed to use. I’ve seen team or manufacturer reps get ragged on by the public for how they wrote a release after an incident or poor run, but in reality, it was the higher ups pulling back the reigns to stick to the brand message. Driver reps don’t necessarily have to worry about that.
Tom: From a driver standpoint you can do a lot more of a personality aspect of it. What you would think would be a standard post-race press release, it can be a lot more personality driven, and needs to be. You have to set your client apart from all the others wearing a helmet and doing similar things with similar backgrounds. A results-driven press release alone gets lost in the clutter. There is a hierarchy. Having worked series, manufacturer, drivers, team, the truth of the matter is the media go to the race series first, then you work your way from there. I think that’s the key thing. You have to work to maximize the system to your client’s benefit. The other thing that differentiates to a certain degree from the team and the driver representative is the keeper of the schedule for the driver. That comes down to your actual relationship with the driver and how that relationship interacts with the team. A lot of teams really don’t want you around as a driver rep because it does confuse things a little bit. I think it comes back to the relationship and understanding you have with that driver.
Kelly: The big thing to remember is if you’re employed by a driver, the driver is usually employed by the team. The team is essentially your boss’s boss. You have to make sure what you’re working on is beneficial to the team as well. It’s not that your job is less significant, it’s just different.
Matt: It’s more intensive. There are a lot more moving parts with a team, and it’s what’s best forthe team. Gary doesn’t get along with John, and John is new, so he doesn’t understand how the team works. Scott has a bad issue with a sponsor, etc. There are a lot more moving parts with a team you have to navigate as a team representative, like tug boats basically, than you would as a driver representative. The driver representative is helping push things forward, and from a team point of view, that also becomes one of the tug boats. You have to work with the driver representative as well as you can, understand what their issues are. Same thing from the driver representative perspective. Obviously, there’s stuff that you’re doing that can benefit the team, and how you manage to communicate with them. It’s about your communication levels: what you’re doing and does this actually help the team?
Tom: I would agree with that. Again, that relationship, it’s all about the driver’s relationship with the team. If you’re the team representative, it’s a different situation. It’s silly not to want to get along and work with the team. And vice versa. It’s more common that the team rep worries about the driver rep because it’s ‘what is that other person doing, they’re trying to steal my team gig.’ I think a lot of people have that concern in this business; especially towards the end of the year. Everyone gets sensitive about their employment for the following year. So, some people often tend to stop working with others and that becomes counter-productive.
Kelly: Running your own business in racing can be tough, but if you prove yourself to be valuable to your client, you should have nothing to worry about. When people get sensitive and stop working with others, the clients are the ones that lose out, and usually end up firing someone. Driver PR and PR service two different purposes and different messages, but they’re both striving for the same goal.
Diane: There is a difference between team PR and driver PR because usually the drivers have their own brand. If a driver has his or her own personal sponsors, it’s almost like a different kind of PR, because they’re getting information to the media but they’re also getting information to the driver’s sponsors and that’s a different focus. The more I work with that other representative and send her pictures and information the more information she can get out to her media list and that helps me in the end.
Tom: It’s the raise all ships concept. Unfortunately, not just in this business, but in sports, universally, you have people who tend to take that approach of ‘this is mine.’ It’s ridiculous not to try to raise all ships.
Matt: Good point too from the team point of view of underutilizing the driver PR reps. For example our GB Autosport client, the driver is from Ireland (Damien Faulkner) and he works with a PR at home. We want to support that as much as possible, as they know those relationships better and can go a lot further than I can, and we just work to feed that machine.
Diane: Team PR reps are not just doing PR, they’re doing marketing, logistics, keeping schedules. There are a whole other layer of things they are involved with and they’re working on and having one more person to help with that is great, as long as they work with you to make sure schedules work. Like the work Matt does with the Rising Star drivers. It may not be something the series PR rep has time for. You’ve got a relationship with the team and the driver, so why wouldn’t you want to utilize the driver’s PR person? It’s a massive asset.
Kelly: When I worked for Falken Tire as the team representative, Tom was (and is) representing Falken’s driver Bryan Sellers, and we utilized each other with each event. It made things so much easier to know I could depend on him for additional PR opportunities as well as work with me in terms of coordinating Bryan’s schedule. It also made things easier for Bryan knowing that Tom and I were working together to benefit him and the team. It was the same with Matt, representing Stevenson Motorsports as I worked with their driver, John Edwards. Matt would send me audio files of John’s post session quotes, and I’d transcribe them for both PR representatives to use. Matt saved me a trip to chase down a driver, and I saved him the time of transcribing.
Why would driver PR representatives be unwelcome?
Tom: I think a lot of that has to do with past experiences. Once you get to the team level, it gets to be more professional. People tend to be more ‘oh, this is a legitimate job.’ I think at the driver level, there have been too many college buddies, the girlfriend, the wife, the mom– the mom is the absolute best. I think that has a lot to do with ‘what’s that person doing in my paddock.’
Kelly: It’s always frustrating when you’re working with a representative and most people confuse them as a groupie because they’re either that unprofessional or bad at their job. We’ve all dealt with that person who is more concerned about hanging out than professionally representing a brand. In that case, the team is more concerned about person staying out of the way and not causing any trouble than focusing on more important things going on. However, there are times were a team can’t afford to hire a PR representative, so when a driver brings one into the mix, they’re happy to have them. I think teams are always a little leery of driver PR to begin with, but I’ve found once you prove yourself, they can be so welcoming and do whatever they can to assist, even provide you with a radio for the sessions so you can hear your driver’s communications during the session.
Enter: Social Media…
Diane: Your social media brings a whole other layer to the ballgame and that’s where the driver representative can really assist. There’s so much information about what the drivers are doing, I may not always know. There’s nothing worse than seeing a tweet about you driver’s activities and you had no idea of what they were doing. If the drivers care about social media and is always working those angles, it’s brilliant.
Kelly: Agreed. Once a driver representative booked one of my team’s drivers to do some guest race commentating. The representative didn’t tell me or the team, so we couldn’t find or get a hold of the driver during that time and we also missed out on a great promotional opportunity. I could have easily done a local media alert, provided a tune in link to the fans and posted behind the scenes photos, as well as a post-session write up to relevant media with quotes from the driver. Just like you said, Diane, I saw a tweet about it after the fact. By then, it’s a lost opportunity.
Tom: I think the social media push has been a huge boon to a driver PR rep because suddenly you’re not just carrying a helmet or a schedule keeper. Now you do have that window of opportunity for twitter and Facebook and so forth, to push beyond those things and beyond the multimedia difference. Suddenly you are more of a value. It’s about more than a press release that can get lost. You are making a real time interaction with the ‘end user’: the fan, the public.
Diane: That’s the hardest thing of the sport. You have guys in helmets. You don’t have guys on the field where everybody knows what they look like. You’re trying to sell those personalities, trying to get that personality out there. That’s the best way to do it. If you have that synchronicity, where you’re both working on that sort of thing, it can really help.
Kelly: It’s been really interesting running social media first for Dion von Moltke, then six months later, landing the twitter role for his team, Flying Lizard Motorsports. It’s so much easier to stay up to speed on the content he’s pushing out, but I have to maintain that same level of synchronicity between the team and the other three (sometimes seven) drivers as well. Thankfully, they all have very different personalities and they get the value of social media to PR, and are great about posting stuff. It can be very challenging to work with “traditional” types of PR who won’t embrace new forms of social media.
Do you ever struggle with other representative with message synchronicity? What do you do?
Ryan: In my case with Corvette, I‘ve got Fiona working with Oliver, Paul working with Jan… they are tremendously experienced and respected as a result. They know the message points and responsibilities that Chevrolet asks us to convey. So everything they do on their own and we do together is very much in sync.
Efrain: a good representative, whether a team or driver representative, is kind of not seen and not heard. And if you’re on the team level, and you don’t come across your driver representative at all, that’s a good representative. I’m sure on the series level, if they’re not thinking about anything we did over the course of the weekend, then we’ve done our job well. You’re doing your job, getting in and getting out without upsetting anything too much.
Tom: It is really easy as a driver rep to upset people. You can walk in, have this great vision for the driver and the team is looking at liability, and they’re not into it.
Diane: And you have drivers like Dion von Moltke, where he’s created this whole brand to so many people. The way he portrays himself is very interesting and something people want to follow.
Kelly: In that case, the team isn’t own by a corporation, so to some extent, so the drivers on Flying Lizard don’t have the same restrictions that others in the series may have. As long as it’s nothing outrageous, the team is in full support of what message the guys choose to send out.
Tom: That can be challenging. I find that working with Bryan and Porsche at the same time, you have to step back and look at it every now and then. We discussed it early on and he was cool with it. You don’t want it to look like every time he comes up, that he’s getting extra attention. Conversely, you don’t want to exclude him because of it. Sometimes, he is the right story, the right angle to maximize the message.
Diane: I have the same thing with the Mazda Road to Indy and working with Gabby Chaves winning races. Have to be careful to not be too…
Tom: You almost have to over correct.
What is your process in getting quotes from team or driver? Do you send to the opposite representative to approve?
Efrain: If you went down that road, it’s a real slippery slope.
Matt: If you got the quote, you got the quote.
Diane: I just send her the release photos.
Efrain: I don’t let any representative look over anything.
Diane: The team manager okays the releases before they go out, that’s all.
Efrain: For Ferrari, I have a whole process for a release. That takes a while. My releases go to everyone at Ferrari, and I’m sitting by a computer, waiting to hit send.
Ryan: Same as what Efrain and Matt said. I get my quotes, Paul and Fiona get theirs… I’ve never asked them to review my releases and vice versa. It goes back to synchronized communication and messaging.
Kelly: In an ideal world, it should only be approved my your client. When I worked at Falken, I never had to send a release to you, Tom to approve, and he never sent one to the team to approve. PR representatives can easily micromanage the other, but I think if both have proven to be good at what they do, there isn’t any need of that.
Tom: We were a great example of that. There were times you’d give me quotes, or I’d give you something. The best case scenario is you work together and figure out how everybody benefits from it. I can’t imagine sending it off to the other representative to approve because it’s not their position. That is not what my client has me there for. You want to work together but I don’t see that for every release. That isn’t productive for anyone. Announcements and things like that then yes, I think you work with the team or sponsor representative of course. But, not a pre- or post-race release.
Matt: In that situation, sure, it’s a professional courtesy point of view. As the team PR representative, you at least want the other representative to know what’s going on. From the driver rep point of view, you should be also trying to see things from the team representative’s point of view. If there’s something going on with the team or your driver, it may not be the best time to relay that to the public. Sometimes the driver gets frustrated, and you may not want to communicate that publicly. Even if that conversation never reaches the team representative, you should be looking out for your driver. Even if your driver is right and has a point, sometimes it’s just smarter to shut up.
Efrain: Even if the driver is frustrated, upset and mad at the team, if you read a quote from a driver, he just comes off as a whiner, because he has the best job ever. It’s pretty much never a good idea.
Tom: As a driver rep, you have to keep their best interest in mind and that includes their best interest as an employee of a team. That can be hard because you become friends with the drivers much more so than the team owners or team manager usually. But, sometimes you have to say ‘that is not in your best interest’ or ‘that is not the right approach.’ Then stand your ground knowing it is the right thing for them professionally long-term. I’ve been guilty of failing to do that in the past. Now I am willing, and have, walked away. It is their career but they have hired me as a consultant and if I disagree with their approach I have to be willing to lose the business and the friendship in order to try and help them from permanently harming their career. Taking a shot at the team or sponsor or sanctioning body, whomever rarely does anyone any good. In the end, working with the team and the team rep to be an extension of their message points via your client is the smart thing to do. It is a team sport and that includes us as media reps.
How do you coordinate interviews with the other representative?
Matt: It’s all about communicating. “Here’s what I’ve got set up, and we’re working on this…” Sometimes it’s hard because you’re working on something and it’s not done, and the other rep is working on something, then you realize there’s a conflict. It’s all communicating back too. If I tell you, I’m working on this thing for Saturday morning, then the other representative can try to move their thing to Sunday morning. I don’t know if the hierarchy there works as much, I guess the best case scenario is letting each other know what’s going on. For example, right now we’re working with Justin Wilson on the craziest schedule for the month of May. There’s things he has to do for the track, series, the team, Honda, and his sponsors. That’s the mandatory list, and it goes on from there. So we’re working with the team rep, “We’ve got this, we know these things are happening.” We keep in touch with each other about “okay, we book this,” or we don’t book this. That’s the best opportunity for a working relationship.
Tom: I always default to the team list as a driver rep. One, at the end of the day, at some point you’re getting paid because the team is paying your driver. Second, there are bigger things the team is working on. That part, schedule wise, is more challenging. When booking the driver stuff, I always go with the team’s schedule. It comes down to communication. None of us work with the President of the United States. The schedule is not that challenging, so it’s a 5 minute window here and there we can all live with that. But I think if we communicate, that’s the key.
Kelly: Agreed. With each of my drivers, I work with either the driver, PR or the Team Manager to get their schedule for the event and use the open windows they’ve given me. They usually have far more obligations with sponsors and manufacturers in addition to team meetings, and the last thing you want to do is get in the way of that. I get the schedule, try to book something in one of the open windows, and double check it by them. Once confirmed, it goes in the official team schedule so that everyone is on the same page.
Diane: You don’t not want to work with that team person. You need to work together and have a schedule worked out. You have to make sure it’s all together.
Ryan: If you don’t, how is that good for the team? Whatever is good for Corvette Racing is going to be good for Chevrolet and whatever is good for Chevrolet is good for Corvette Racing. Same goes for drivers and teams and vice versa. They should all be symbiotic efforts.
Tom: You’re working with that driver for a reason.
Diane: It’s always been when you need something from the driver, you go to the driver. You shouldn’t have to go the driver representative first.
Ryan: Mutual respect. You have to do what you were hired to do. After a certain about of time, people recognize you, and it would seem that would smooth over.
Efrain: I’ve come across plenty of PR representatives that have felt the need to justify their existence. Like they’d never let you just go to the driver, and if you missed that step, there was a big problem. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to do the same thing. If you’re trying to take credit, okay, whatever.
Tom: It’d be nice to have communication about what’s going on so you don’t find out later. That’s what you and I did, Kelly, and it worked. We communicated and never felt anything was counterproductive.
Efrain: Fortunately or unfortunately, if we’re talking about hierarchies, the way things work is ultimately, the bus stops where the money starts. If you have a paid driver that’s paying for the whole thing, than the driver PR rep has the upper hand. If the manufacturer owns the whole team, then guess what. Whoever owns the whole thing is probably the one with the most leverage. Sometimes it’s better to be the driver rep, the team rep, the manufacturer rep.
Learning from others
Tom: You can’t be so stuck in your ways. I meet people in this business that they couldn’t get out of their own way. Right or wrong, they can’t work in groups. Not even being fluid in working with people but being smart enough to step back and say ‘holy crap, she does that really well. I need to do that better.” And not in a negative way, but see it as a positive. I did that a lot with you, Kelly, on the social media side. I’ve learned, and continue to learn, a lot just from observing you and others. How boring is it if you fail to learn from others? If you fail to grow? If you don’t recognize you don’t have all the answers and that someone else probably does it better? We can all learn something from someone everyday if we are receptive to it. There is always a faster gun. Learn from it. That is a critical part of life, not just livelihood.
Kelly: That was a big thing in working for Falken, with you as Bryan’s rep, and with John Edwards and Matt Cleary as the team rep. We each did things slightly differently, and it was a learning experience for me on how things could be done better or differently. In working with others in the field, you discover your strengths and weaknesses. Working with Tom, I saw new ways to add data and a client’s personality into a press release, and with Matt, I saw a different way to manage clients and commitments. Even in starting my own business, a lot of my starting steps were cues taken from Matt’s lead. He’s done a great job with Sunday Group, and watching him has been an educational experience. I hate it when you ask someone for professional advice and they blow you off. Or, you see something being done improperly and offer help and the person gets offended. We’re all in the same industry and should be able to learn from each other to be better.
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I’d like to thank Matt, Diane, Efrain, Tom and Ryan for taking the time out of their busy schedules to participate in the discussion and for their contributions in the industry. I look forward to more roundtables like this in the future. If you have a topic you’d like discussed in a future roundtable, please comment below, or submit via the contact page.