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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.