Public Relations is long-term, not just real-time

DISCLOSURE: Ford Motor Company Canada provided me with a 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid to drive from Toronto to SXSW, in Austin, TX, and back. I covered all additional costs including gas. Since my return I have also driven two other vehicles from the company – a CMAX and a Focus Plug-in Hybrid.

In return, Ford has not asked for anything. They have not asked me to write anything or that anything I choose to write be favourable. Nobody has seen or asked for editorial oversight prior to publication.

This post has been almost ready to publish on more than a few occasions, but each time I’ve read it one last time and thought it could be improved. I think it’s a more interesting piece as a result.

“When can I expect coverage” is the question I’ve been most often asked by clients during my public relations career. They’d done an interview and the focus has then switched to when the article or news piece will get published. Over the years it’s become a bigger issue: the real-time internet has grown and publications have switched to online-first and this has driven the the requirement for instant gratification.

Almost eight weeks ago Ford Canada kindly agreed to lend me one of their Ford Fusion Hybrid vehicles to drive from Toronto to SXSW, in Austin Texas, and back again. In total, I drove more than 7500km in the car and, as I’ve worked on this post in its various iterations, how often do you think they’ve asked me when something was going to be written about my trip? Not once. Never. Zilch.

If I’m honest, they’d have been perfectly justified in asking. They gave me a vehicle, worth more than CAD 30,000, for a week. They could, justifiably, be keen to see some kind of return for their investment. And yet…

The initial focus of my post was going to be on the car. I’ve never been a fan of hybrid vehicles and wanted to see how the Fusion worked. As a bootstrapping entrepreneur I wondered whether a hybrid could deliver significant additional value for people like me. I’ve not actually counted, but I think I went to the gas station seven or eight times during the whole trip – that’s about once every 1000kms, which – compared to the other cars I’ve driven, is pretty impressive.

I recorded more than 200 videos during the trip and, if you’re really interested, this video – as I drove back in to Toronto on March 14th – tells you everything you need to know. Would I spend my own money on the 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid?

But, as time has gone by what I thought about the car has become less important.  I started with lofty, an unrealistic, ambitions of creating some kind of Top Gear challenge video, but with only a few days between finding out I could have a car and the trip, and a business to run, I wasn’t properly prepared. I had also hoped to tweet as I drove down the backbone of the US but driving 3000km in three days leaves very little time for tweeting or blogging. I could blame Ford – they hadn’t created a tweeting car – but that’s not accurate. OK, so they’ve not actually built a tweeting car, but they’ve created a vehicle that, had I had a cellular data package for the US and one of the voice to tweet apps on my handset, the car could have tweeted. Location, gas economy, temperature, photographs… it’s going to happen.

Earlier in the year I was invited by Ford to attend the company’s digital summit, held alongside the North American International Auto Show and got my first insight of how it is approaching public relations and is using social communications, bloggers and influencers. I spoke with the Ford’s Head of Global Social Media, Scott Monty and I was impressed, but it’s easy to present an image over a short period of time when you know people are watching – isn’t that what public relations is all about, after all? It’s delivering the right message, to the right people, at the right time, in the right way… it’s all about perception, right?

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I questioned Ford’s commitment to its community-building PR and marketing strategy – just that, having worked in PR for so many years and helped companies to create the right perceptions, it’s not always easy to maintain the standards you set when the focus isn’t on you. It’s all too easy to forget one of the key, but often forgotten, parts of public relations – the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and an audience [technically described as a public].

It’s far easier to focus on the short-term “when can I expect the coverage” than it is to build a long-term mutually beneficial relationship, but if I had any doubt that FORD gets it the last few weeks have answered them. Their tagline says Go Further – and FORD’s PR and social strategy is focused on the journey – building long-term relationships with its stakeholders – not just the destination.  More businesses need to understand this.

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