Memo to GM Et Al: Public Relations Counts as Marketing, But Only If You Do It Right.

David Kiley

General Motors pulled its advertising schedule from the Los Angeles Times today, citing innacurate and overly critical reporting by the paper's auto writers. I'll be looking forward to seeing the automaker prove it.

The edict from Detroit came down after Pulitzer Prize winning auto writer Dan Neil wrote a negative review of the Pontiac G6 and at the same time called for the ouster of GM chairman Rick Wagoner and vice chairman/product chief Bob Lutz.

"The G6 is not an awful car. It's entirely adequate. But plainly, adequate is not nearly enough," writes Neil. " However, given recent events, I have to revise my story. To wit: Dump Wagoner," he wrote.

As the former Detroit Bureau chief of USA Today and the current President of the International Motor Press Association, I can attest that GM is often very critical of press coverage about the company. Bob Lutz has even given speeches in which he "calls out" publications like Car & Driver for unfair reviews of the company's cars, and accuses us of being biased against GM. I've been reading over the Times' recent coverage, and I'm struggling to find any factual errors. GM should list what they are.

Pulling ads in a fit of pique, though, to send a message to a newspaper that it better back off chills me to the bone as a reporter. Car dealers, not an insignificant contributor to a paper's ad pages, are playing a role in this GM action as well. Big surprise. Since I worked at a daily newspaper in suburban New Jersey in the late 1980s, dealers have used their ad buying clout to muscle newspapers into writing more positively about the cars they sell.

2001 named Ron Zarrella. Zarrella was a hire from Bausch & Lomb. On Zarella's last day, he said the only smart thing I ever heard from him. I'm paraphrasing, but he said: The biggest thing I learned about the auto industry is that what you guys (the media) say about GM is far more influential than what we say about ourselves or buy through advertising. In the world of packaged goods, he said, the media didn't care about contact-lens solution, so all the consumer knows is what we advertise.

GM is going through a rough patch. As I and other reporters have said, the company is supporting too many brands for the dwindling market share it has. And as Neil points out in his review of the G6, GM far too often produces perfectly adequate vehicles rather than vehicles that truly excite and inspire people. The current Buick LaCrosse simply doesn't handle as well or feel as good as the Honda Accord or Nissan Altima, and no amount of strong-arming is going to make a reporter say otherwise.

No matter the motivation of GM and its dealers for yanking ads from the LA Times, the effect is to communicate to the legion of reporters covering GM that the automaker is far more desperate than any of us thought. Is that really the message GM wants to communicate?

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