By on May 15, 2013

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This being Q&A Wednesday, I promised to answer  TTAC commenter 28-cars-later’s question in feature-length. He said: “Bertel, how do you get such access to Ghosn… is Nissan just *this* friendly to the press?” Let me explain to you how it works.

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I am in Tokyo for a simple reason: Love. Being here also is made easy due to the fact that nowhere in the world can you cover the world’s automotive industry with greater ease than in Tokyo. Companies that are in charge of about a third of the world’s automotive output are not more than a few subway stations apart. Sure, companies like Toyota or Mazda officially are headquartered elsewhere, but they have substantial presences in Tokyo. From where I live, it’s 45 minutes to Toyota, 30 minutes to Honda, 30 minutes to Nissan in Yokohama. All by train, few people still drive in the world capital of cars. Besides, having Ronnie Schreiber in Detroit provides plenty of counter-weight, especially now that he covers the truly poetic aspects  of the state of Michigan, in a story so deep that I am unable to fathom it.

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You don’t have to speak Japanese to work with the Japanese car companies. I don’t, except for what’s needed to order a hotto kohee, a hot coffee.  The large multinationals usually have large polyglot and often multinationally staffed  PR departments that cater to the international media.

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Nissan is the epitome of internationalism. The whole company is like the United Nations, their management hails from all corners of the world, the language at 1-1, Takashima 1-chome, Nishi-ku, Yokohama-shi, Kanagawa 220-8686, Japan, officially is English. Simultaneous translation is a growth industry at Nissan.

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Despite their inscrutable image, access to Japanese carmakers is easy. Much easier than, say, get access to a flack at GM, at least for me, Ed Niedermeyer, or Robert Farago back when.  In Tokyo, simply pick up the phone to make your presence known, you have a get-to-know-each-other meeting over a cup of  hotto kohee, and unless there is immediate mutual dislike, you are in. With a third of the world’s automotive volume  being bunched-up within a few square miles, getting the inside track is a matter of a few days  and a similar number of cups of kohee.

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Actually, one  needs to be selective in making contact, because  soon you won’t have time to write with all the visits. Let’s have a look at my Outlook. Tomorrow, at noon, I will be at Mitsubishi to learn what they will race up  Pike’s Peak. Then I need to jump on the Keihin-Tohoku  line to Yokohama to learn everything about Nissan’s Common Module Family (CMF), despite warnings that “this briefing will consist entirely of the same content which Nissan disclosed on February 27, 2012.” You never know. On Friday morning, I will be at Nissan again for some kei car story that is sadly embargoed until June 6th. After a ride on the Keihin-Tohoku line, I will be at Toyota. On Monday, I will go on a 4 hour ride on the alleged bullet train to Shin-Kurashiki near Hiroshima. There, I will hear everything about a kei car Mitsubishi builds together with and for Nissan. It’s most likely the same car that will be disclosed by Nissan on Friday under embargo. So I better don’t go on Friday, thereby being able to write what and when I want, apart from being able to sleep in.

Once you are on the list, you visit a third of the world’s automotive volume multiple times a week. If you are not on the list, no problem. Show your meishi, your business card, at most press conferences, and you are in.  Exciting, no?

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Now you probably ask how can they afford all those lavish press events with all the free booze and canapés multiple times a week? Simple: There is no free booze, there are no canapés. The only food is of the for thought variety. You are lucky if you get a bottle of water – usually reserved for special occasions, such as the quarterly results, or the launch of a new model. The entertainment at the launches consists of a PowerPoint deck, the lavish press trip usually takes place on the aforementioned Keihin-Tohoku line, paid for by my own SUICA card, a fare card that depletes faster than the battery of a Plug-in Prius.

When I go to Mitsubishi on Monday, there will be free transportation: A shuttle bus from Shin-Kurashiki to the factory. The train fare  from Tokyo ($330) is expected to be paid by the members of the media. Yesterday, going home to Tokyo on a (free) bus laid on by Nissan, a whisper went through the assembled A-list of Tokyo’s press corps: We were told to surrender the lanyards, as we always do. But this time, we could keep the baseball hat. At factory visits, hats are mandatory. It also is mandatory to give them back. Except at the launch of Infiniti’s main premium segment model. There, you get a free hat.

This is probably not the answer 28-cars-later wanted to hear. But it’s the truth. He surely doesn’t want me to lie.

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Closeness allegedly breeds contempt. Not true in this business. Familiarity makes for mutual respect. It’s easy to hurt someone who doesn’t like you either, it’s harder to throw written invectives at someone you will see face-to-face tomorrow. GM has yet to learn this simple trick of manipulating the media.

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I am known to occasionally make a mistake. Then, my phone rings, and someone apologizes for not having been clear enough in the morning.  Japan is the land of politeness, and  of high precision. Factual mistakes are fixed immediately. Differences in opinion are never mentioned, and it is understood that they would remain unchanged anyway. I have yet to hear one comment about a car review, good or bad, on TTAC. Wait, the other day, someone at Nissan said “I did read Baruth’s comparo of the 2012 and 2013 Sentra.” I gave the internationally accepted hand sign for “give it to me,” and nothing was given.  I don’t know whether they liked it or not. After reading the story, I still can’t figure it out.

They usually can take a joke. Despite of what some people think, my picture features of Nissan’s gesticulating CEO Carlos Ghosn appear to be a source of great amusement in the company, and I always have the same seat at the press conference. (Front row, across the aisle from the brass, right in front of the lectern.)  And that’s the secret of unfettered access: Make them laugh.

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23 Comments on “Inside The Industry, Special Edition: The Truth About Getting In...”


  • avatar
    mike978

    “Familiarity makes for mutual respect. It’s easy to hurt someone who doesn’t like you either, it’s harder to throw written invectives at someone you will see face-to-face tomorrow.”
    Agreed, you have always shown Toyota respect in your articles. I don`t recall any article where you criticize Toyota, plenty where you criticize other companies (and there have been a few).
    I also agree GM should be “nicer” to the press (and TTAC) to get better treatment, human nature I suppose that familiarity makes for better press.

    • 0 avatar
      burgersandbeer

      The negativity toward GM has gone on for so long at TTAC that I doubt GM thinks they have anything to gain from being nice to TTAC at this point.

      I don’t want to cause a debate about the cause of that negativity and who’s to blame – I don’t care. Just pointing out that some relationships (like the one between GM and TTAC) are beyond repair.

    • 0 avatar
      Jean-Pierre Sarti

      I was not around in the “good ole days” of Farago et al. but frankly I don’t see the huge problem with TTAC’s GM content. If I want fluff pieces and or press releases on the Corvette or Camero I go to Autoblog and the like and they happily oblige.

      To me, TTAC has been way more right than wrong in their views on GM. So TTAC writes more critical things about GM than they do positive. I see nothing wrong with that.

      I see TTAC, and I say this with all due respect, in the role of the heel in wrestling. We need heels to keep the so-called “Good Guys” honest. Another analogy would be short sellers in the stock market. For all the negative publicity on them they are a necessary component to the entire system especially to keep CEOs in line.

      Any of the color rags or major cars sites filling this role? I would honestly like to know because all my years of reading about cars I haven’t found one as close to TTAC in taking people to task.

  • avatar
    Southern Perspective

    This is excellent, Mr. Schmitt.

    It appears that the western world still has plenty to learn from the Japanese.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Okay, I got a question. In the post Farago era, lets suppose we substitute Nissan for GM, in every post or comment at TTAC. That would make for a whole lot of negative,from TTAC directed at Nissan.

    My question. Would the Nissan welcome mat still be there for TTAC?

    • 0 avatar
      Jean-Pierre Sarti

      TTAC has not exactly been soft on Nissan regarding the Leaf or their EV strategy in general.

    • 0 avatar
      TorontoSkeptic

      TTAC already slams the majority of Nissan cars and the welcome mat is still out.

      The coverage has either been unfavorable (Versa, Leaf, Juke, Cube, Rogue, Infiniti re-branding) or non-existent (Armada, Maxima, Titan). Aside from the latest Altima and Sentra getting so-so reviews I can’t really think of any positive coverage Nissan has received.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        Ridiculous. TTAC hasn’t slammed a vehicle in ages at this point.

        Alex Dykes is one of the all too few reviewers I have known in this business who doesn’t exhibit a strong bias or prejudice towards any given automaker.

        Jack Baruth is the same way. I don’t see him exhibiting any of the anti-Chrysler or anti-big car attitudes that are promoted by the pseudo-fashionista wannabe’s that frequent our industry. If he experiences something, he reports it. End of story. This is highly unusual for this business. I think one of the reasons why he ended up writing a comparo for Road & Track recently is because several other professional journalists respect the fact that he is honest with his audience and knows what he’s talking about.

        Now Sajeev Mehta is an idiot. A Panther loving, Ranger driving idiot. Steve Lang is even worse. A tightass who couldn’t love a luxury car to save his ass from first base. God I love those two guys!

        Finally, I guess we should come out now with one more of our members. Doug DeMuro… is actually the chauffeur for Bertel Schmitt. Now you know. He will be coming out with a review for the Lexus LS430hq3x*4×4 the next time Bertel needs to make a pilgrimage to Tennessee.

        That last line is not as much of a joke as you realize. When Ed, Bertel and I visited the VW plant and Nissan’s North American headquarters a few years ago, we did it in a Scion of all things. Nobody cared about our car being a Toyota. However I did get my share of questions on what beater used car to buy for a teenager, relative, bum brother, wife, and long-time mistress.

        Unfortunately none of these enlightened souls were willing to make a six hour pilgrimage to my used car lot and test drive my fine suggestions.

        Damn! I’m still trying to unload a green 99′ Isuzu Rodeo from that time period. Hmmm… maybe if I put a Nissan badge on it…

      • 0 avatar
        mike978

        TTAC may be indifferent to Nissan as a whole. What I was referring to was BS in particular and Toyota. Some columnists on here are one “one side” or the other. But it is clear, as BS says himself, that familiarity makes him more “respectful”.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    I feel quite honored Bertel, thank you for answering my innocent question with this truly excellent article.

  • avatar
    Jean-Pierre Sarti

    I’ve always thought you were adept at picking photos of Ghosn in mid movement.

    How do you resist not asking Mr Ghosn if anybody has ever referred to him as Mr Bean. All in good jest of course!

  • avatar
    jimbob457

    Good stuff. After WWII we told the losers they couldn’t do aircraft and weapons in general, so all their engineering brains and energy went into the car business, consumer electronics, etc. Almost 70 years later this still resonates.

    As for Detroit – they are history: smug, stupid and lazy. If it were not for the Ford heir and his new hire, I suspect 2008-9 would have been a total wipe out.

  • avatar
    th009

    Another great story, Bertel. I do hope you put it all together into a book some day, I will be the first in line to buy a copy.

    In the meantime, I would be happy to buy you a hotto kohee (or cold beer, at your choice) anytime I’m in Tokyo (which is quite often enough). I’ll even pay my own train fare!

  • avatar
    ravenchris

    Slightly uplifting story.
    Perhaps somebody at GM will extend an invitation for a a drink with olives in it.
    Now that would be big news at TTAC.

  • avatar
    sunridge place

    With such access, one would think we might get at least a sentence or two of analysis when Nissan makes statements about their disappointment in their performance in the US in the last fiscal year. They vaguely referenced ‘car flow’ issues and I would imagine Altima sales were a disappointment too. What were the ‘car flow’ issues? Nissan’s Days Supply never looked dramatically low last year. What happened?

    Instead, we get pictures of PR people pouring coffee, smiling, and Mr Bean-like photos of the CEO (which were rather amusing)

  • avatar
    360joules

    My previous comment must have been snagged by WordPress. In short, F8 and be there was the motto of photojournalists. Bertel shows up, is courteous, polite, has ties to the old VW that created the ur-Golf, and married in to the club…although to some Japanese, that would make him and/or his bride suspect.

  • avatar
    360joules

    As an aside, Bertel, can you walk through a prosperous neighborhood to photograph what is piled on the streets for Big Trash Day, or is that merely something left over in my memory from the late 80′s Nikkei Bubble?

    • 0 avatar

      It’s complicated. We have to consult a price list. Then we have to go to the Seven-Eleven and buy a sticker of the appropriate value. Then we have to call the city for a pickup.

      If it’s good, it will be taken away by homeless. Our neighborhood homeless have jointly bought a truck for that purpose ….

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Nice story and very informative. I’ve had the pleasure and honor of visiting Tokyo, and from what I experience there, you’re absolutely right about it being the land of politeness and high precision, as everyone I met and interacted with possessed those qualities.

    I didn’t witness as single incident of inner-city road rage, and the only instance of anyone yelling was during a protest march in Akibahara, and even those were highly orderly.

    I myself could be regarded as a loud, boorish American, so I never thought I’d get culture shock upon RETURNING to America (Houston’s Bush Airport, specifically), but I did. “Why are all these people being so loud and boorish?” I thought to myself.

    “Oh right…I’m HOME.”

  • avatar
    mitchw

    Whoa, whoa, whoa there, Bertel. Why was I imagining you picking up Japanese? I was really impressed, too.

  • avatar

    I like these insider stories.

    Question: Does being a Westerner make it easier to get access? Or harder? Or is it the same as for Japanese journalists?


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