Knowing that some of the top PR professionals in the business are regular readers of TTAC (they could be anyone…), I can imagine a number of them shaking their heads in disapproval at the headline of this post. “It’s happened,” they’re probably muttering to themselves, “TTAC has finally lost the plot.” But instead of dismissing out of hand the seemingly preposterous premise of this post, I ask the assembled anonymous masses of PR pros to bear with me for a moment. As laughable as it might seem to postulate that the industry’s spin doctors can learn something from the most infamously “off the reservation” auto exec ever, the urge to write off this post is part of the very problem I hope to tackle. Allow me to explain…
With the depth of the financial crisis-precipitated recession behind us, and the auto industry showing some signs of returning to normalcy (if not the “old normal”), the temptation to rely on proven practices must be greater than ever. But although the industry is doubtless in better shape than it was a year ago (let alone two years ago), this is no time to sink back into complacency. Beneath the short-term shocks of the last several years, is a rising tide of more subtle challenges which are all-too easy to ignore. From weak products to increases in traffic, from government regulation to the social sphere’s shift towards the online world, a number of factors are conspiring to hollow out the industry’s cultural relevance, especially in “mature markets.” In Japan, the decline of the automobile has been so dramatic it’s even inspired a name for the emerging post-automobile order: kuruma banare. And if business-as-usual continues in the US, we’ll see that trend pick up pace here as well.
So, you might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with PR? After all, the in-depth studies of kuruma banare identify it as the product of a number of trends (referenced above), many of which seem unavoidable. Though I wouldn’t pretend to have a definitive answer to the waning cultural appeal of automobiles, I am convinced that a paradigm shift in how automakers view and practice PR is the first step in revitalizing the image of the most powerful and sophisticated consumer good on the market. And the core of that shift can be found in, of all places, the writings of one Robert Lutz.
In his first book, Guts, the then-recently retired Chrysler product development boss laid out seven idiosyncratic “laws of business,” with such blasphemous titles as “The Customer Isn’t Always Right” and “Financial Controls Are Bad!” They’re the kind of “laws” that, on the surface, add to Lutz’s reputation as “overly opinionated” and a “loose cannon,” but for an industry built on consistency and process, they represent an eye-opening counterpoint to conventional wisdom. Which is, in my mind, precisely what is called for to combat a rising tide of automotive apathy.
For the purposes of this piece, let’s concentrate on Law Four: “Too Much Quality Can Ruin You.” As a consummate “product guy,” with a well-documented disdain for the entire business of PR (more on that in a minute), Lutz doesn’t mention spin-doctoring in his law, but the core of his argument applies nicely to it. Towards the end of the chapter on Law Four, he sums up:
“Given two extremes- “zero defects with no delight” and “delight with a few squeaks in it”- the public will always buy the latter.
Lutz revisits the theme in his latest book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, in which he publishes a memo he circulated through GM shortly after arriving there, aimed at repairing its moribund new product development system. In the last of ten rules with which he hoped to smash GM’s institutional reluctance to develop great products, he writes
Remember the Bob Lutz motto: “Often wrong but seldom in doubt.” None of us is infallible, and we all make errors. Remember baseball, where a batting average of .400 is unheard of! But pushing and arguing for what you believe to be the right course (while recognizing you just might be wrong, therefore, still willing to listen) is the key to moving forward. Errors of commission are less damaging to us than errors of omission. In our business, taking no risk is to accept the certainty of long-term failure. (Even Aztek, in this sense, is noble!)
This approach is essentially Lutzian, producing occasional “sins of commission” like the Pontiac Solstice’s compromised ergonomics and practicality, but also fundamentally changing the image of GM’s products. Apply this line of thinking to the world of PR, instead of just product development, and you’ll understand the essence of my argument.
Public Relations, by definition, is about creating a product: positive news and analysis about your company. And the higher “quality” this product is, the better your career as a PR professional will be. But what is “quality,” actually? With apologies to Robert Prsig, the best synonym in the industrial context is “consistency.” Consistently good news, generated with consistent regularity is the “product” the PR professional aspires to. Everything else is to be avoided or suppressed. But what few, if any, PR professionals (or the people who employ them) seem to understand, is that “too much quality” can kill PR strategically, even as it achieves tactical goals (obvious “wins” and attendant promotions).
What the “quality” paradigm leaves out of PR is an understanding of the consumers of PR. Just as GM failed to understand that a sixth-generation Malibu design that had “zero compromises” (based on its internal product development rules) could be utterly mediocre and unappealing to consumers, Automotive PR professionals fail to understand (or accept) that an endless flow of perfectly consistent positive news is equally unappealing. Nothing about the millenia of evolution that has shaped modern man has prepared us for the kind of “quality” the PR business provides; The human mind thrives on contrast, deriving equal enjoyment from a thrilling roller-coaster one minute, and a warm drink and good book the next. We understand reality through the twists and turns of narrative, the interplay between hero and villain, the drama of the rising power and the crumbling empire. Modern PR provides us with none of these things, preferring blindered, parallel flows of positive information: a “perfect mediocrity” (another Lutz-ism) that interests only those who are paid to feign interest in it.
These thoughts had been rattling around my brain ever since I began diving into Lutz’s work in preparation for my review of Car Guys, and when I met Lutz in person for the first time last week, I shared with him an abbreviated version of the argument you’ve been reading here. To my surprise, the idea of applying his product philosophy to PR had never occurred to him, although he seemed intrigued by the parallels. And then it occurred to me that this was precisely the point: though he’s always exercising his own form of PR, he’s never spared a moment’s thought for the traditional or tactical practices of the PR profession. Which is precisely why he is, love him or hate him, the sole towering industry figure in the imaginations of car guys and auto journalists. Yes, part of his appeal has to do with other aspects of his product philosophy and the vehicles he helped create, but the fact that he has no internal PR “quality control” makes him wholly unlike anyone else in the industry. The wild inconsistency between his penetrating insights and his flamboyant (for lack of a better word) bullshit is the antithesis of industrial PR “quality” and the key to his appeal.
As I left his rural spread just outside Ann Arbor, it occurred to me (and not for the first time) that there might well never be another auto executive like Lutz again. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine the industry ever overcoming the relentless loss of relevance and excitement that’s occurred as high modernity fades in society’s rear-view mirror. Yes, the cars themselves are important. But the people who dream them to life, create them from raw materials, and represent and defend them in the public space have to live up to the huge social and cultural impact that cars promise. In particular, the PR pros have to learn that eliminating risk is, to quote Bob one more time, “to accept the certainty of long-term failure.”