Wade Hoyt is retiring after two decades as Toyota’s Northeast PR Manager and, before that, more than two decades as an auto writer and editor for a number of consumer magazines. He was one of the last of the first wave of journalists to trade their calling for cash, migrating to the ‘dark side’ of auto communications in 1994. AW.Com asked him to reflect on changes in automotive journalism and PR over his career. Here is his valedictory:
I need to start this essay with an apology to Rick Newman at Yahoo! Finance for stealing his reply to my email about retiring and using it as a headline. I hate to waste a good wisecrack.
After 20 years as Northeast PR Manager for Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc. (TMS to its friends), I’ll be retiring at the end of May. Glenn Campbell’s been kind enough to ask me to write something about my career, how I got into PR in the first place, as well as how PR’s changed over the decades. So, putting aside my negligible modesty, here goes, to the best of my elderly recollection…
I was an automotive journalist for the better part of 25 years before I went over to The Dark Side, as a colleague once called PR. I’d worked at a series of so-called “screwdriver books” – Mechanix Illustrated, Science & Mechanics, Popular Mechanics – even at Reader’s Digest (in the General Books how-to division, not at the magazine) before ending my editorial career at the Hearst trade magazine Motor, which is a very technical publication for independent auto repair shop owners and technicians.
During much of this time, I commuted into and out of Manhattan in test cars. It’s about a 43-mile drive from midtown Manhattan to my home in northern Westchester County, and this provided an excellent mix of roads from congested urban traffic to twisty, hilly Depression-era highways to country roads. Some thought I was nuts to drive into Manhattan every day, but I viewed it as a competitive event. Because Manhattan’s ring roads – the Westside Highway and FDR Drive – are so congested, my commute went through Central Park and Harlem. I usually got onto the Westside Highway near the George Washington Bridge, where 90 percent of the traffic was exiting for New Jersey.
Although some were aghast that I would venture into Harlem, I’ve got to say that, having done so for decades, I’ve had only one uncomfortable incident, and it was a long time ago. I was driving north in the left lane of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd. in a Saab test car one summer evening. This is a wide thoroughfare with a central median. A Wonder Bread van passed me on the right, swerved into my lane, crumpled the right front fender, punctured the tire and kept on going. But I could see that he’d be halted by red lights ahead, so I drove after him, the flat tire flopping. I blocked his path, got out of the Saab and said: “Hey, you hit my car back there!” The Wonder Bread driver was so stoned he didn’t even realize he’d hit me.
I told him to pull over into a nearby bus stop so we could exchange information. Once there, he got out of the van and immediately walked around the corner, looking for a pay phone to call his dispatcher. This was before cell phones. I prepared to change the tire. I found the spare and the jack in the unfamiliar Saab, but couldn’t locate the lug wrench. While I was rummaging through the hatchback’s cargo bay, a short, neatly dressed black man approached me holding a paper bag that looked like his lunch. He calmly said, “I’m a drug addict, I’ve got a gun in here, and I want 20 bucks.” And I thought to myself: It’s Friday night and I want to go home. My first thought was to pull out my wallet and give the pest 20 bucks to get rid of him. But then I thought: What if he snatches the whole wallet? I’ll lose all my money, my credit cards, my license and my comb!
He didn’t look like a drug addict to me. He had a neatly trimmed goatee and could have passed for a college professor. His back was to traffic and I could see a police car leisurely approaching us as we blocked the bus stop. I said, “I guess I’m out of luck, I don’t have 20 bucks.” And he said: “So make it 10.”
Well, now we’re talking, and the police car is still slowly approaching. By the time I got him down to 3 bucks, the police car was nearly behind him. I said, “Excuse me a second,” and leapt out in front of the cruiser, waving my arms wildly. By the time I told the cops what was going on, the little guy had vanished. He had turned to vapor!
I told the cops my story: no, it’s not my car; I’m the auto editor of Popular Mechanics and Saab has lent it to me so I can review it, etc., etc. Their reaction was: “They pay you for this?” But they took mercy on me, lent me their lug wrench, and proceeded to fill out a police report as I gave them the details while putting the temporary spare onto the Saab. Just as Ifinished up, the Wonder Bread driver drifted dreamily back around the corner. I asked the police if they wanted me to stick around and they said: “No we’ll take care of him.”
As I prepared to drive away, the cops reminded me not to exceed 50 mph with the temp spare once I got onto the highway, and I thought: I know that; I’m the auto editor at Popular Mechanics! But I kept it to myself.
On the way home, I stopped at a friend’s tire store and bought Saab a new tire. Which brings me to the point of this tale: I was able to expense the tire because Editor Joe Oldham always insisted that we return test cars in the same condition in which we received them – washed and fully gassed. If the car was damaged, we’d either have it repaired or offer to pay for the repair. It was not only the right thing to do, but kept us in good stead with the manufacturers.
I don’t see a lot of that attitude today. I see some writers and bloggers ignoring parking tickets and toll violations, pretending they were unaware of minor damage, and even insisting they’re not at fault when a test car is booted or impounded for parking violations. One guy, who will remain nameless, got a $400 speeding ticket in a state park at a Lexus launch awhile back. He had the nerve to ask if we’d pay the fine. When I declined, he said, “Mercedes always pays for my tickets.” I replied: “Oh good, send them that one, too.” I know, I know: PR is supposedly the art of diplomacy!
While I was in publishing, I’d always done some freelance writing for non-competing magazines. Pitches for auto articles aren’t an easy sell in Manhattan, where more than half the residents don’t even own a car. I recall reviewing a Jeep for Esquire and having my editor there call with a question: “What’s this part about a 6-cylinder engine?” I explained that there were two kinds of engines, 6-cylinders and V8s [this was a long time ago]. The editor said: “I don’t think our readers know what that is. I’m taking it out.” At which point I thought: Just get my name right on the check!
As anyone in the magazine business can attest, every time there’s a recession, ad revenues go down and layoffs ensue. The third time I was laid off in my checkered career, in 1994, I had a mortgage, two kids in college with one more to go, and I was over 50. Thank God for freelance and a gainfully employed wife! But I knew I couldn’t go on in publishing. I may be stubborn, but I’m not stupid. As an auto writer and editor, I’d travelled around the world on the auto companies’ dime, learned which fork to use, and driven a lot of exciting cars in exotic places. It was an exhilarating ride, but it was time to move on. I decided to follow many others and cross the road into automotive PR, if I could find an opening.
Thanks to networking at IMPA, I learned that Fred Hammond was about to leave his position in Toyota’s Northeast PR office and return to Volvo. I sent resumes to the two Toyota PR guys I knew best: Joe Tetherow at Toyota’s headquarters in California, and Moon Mullins, who I later learned was a Toyota consultant, not an employee. After what seemed like months of interviews (the Toyota Way), I got the job. I was elated! As I explained to a former editorial colleague who wanted to know how I could possibly stand doing PR: “At Toyota, you don’t have to make excuses for the products.” I would have taken a job with Daewoo; I was out of work!
Although my title was officially Public Affairs Manager, the job really consisted of media relations, mainly with established automotive editors and writers, with an occasional financial writer who covered the industry thrown in, like the late, unforgettable Jerry Flint at Forbes and Alex Taylor at Fortune. Like many automotive PR folks in the ‘90s, I had no formal degree or training in PR. I just knew that some of the PR folks I’d dealt with in the past were life savers and some were totally useless. I vowed to be one of the former group. My PR coach at Toyota was Bernard “Moon” Mullins. Moon was an urban legend.
I’d first encountered Moon when I was a journalist and he was the New York-based Dodge PR guy. Car and Driver was based in Manhattan in those days, and a staffer had some Hemi-powered Dodge muscle car stolen off the street while parked near his Brooklyn apartment. Rumor had it that the car was being raced at a drag strip on Long Island. The police couldn’t spot the car because every week it appeared at the drag strip with a different paint job and grille. Back then, Chrysler kept body styles in production until the dies wore out, but redesigned the grilles and tail lights each year. The perps were apparently working out of a body shop.
Feeling responsible (yes!), the editor accompanied police to the drag strip and fingered the stolen Dodge. Elated, the editor called Moon on Monday to announce that the car had been recovered. To which Moon allegedly responded: “Damn! It was winning!” And that was my first inkling of what PR was all about.
Moon had many aphorisms relating to PR: “The guy with the shortest quote wins.” “Get the bad news out all at once.” “Stretch out the good news.” I referred to them as The Sayings of Chairman Moon.
During two decades working for Toyota, there were many highlights and some not-so-great times. During the Unintended Acceleration panic, I told commiserating friends that it was surprisingly comfortable under my desk. My 15 days of fame were the result of a call one Wednesday before Thanksgiving from Jim Cobb, Automobile Editor at The New York Times. He told me he was expecting an article from a correspondent in the Middle East concerning the use of Toyota HiLux pickup trucks by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and did I have any comment! I told him I needed to do some research and would call him right back. I was able to determine that Toyota had not sold any vehicles in Afghanistan since the Russians had invaded the country 10 years earlier, but that we assembled them across the border in Pakistan.
I dutifully reported that to Jim, but couldn’t help adding: “It’s not our proudest product placement, but it does show that the Taliban are looking for the same things as any truck buyer: quality, durability and reliability.” What else could you say: “We can’t control what the end users do with our products”? That’s just lame, and it’s always best if you can defuse a prickly situation with a little humor.
I could hear Jim keyboarding as I spoke, and I thought: This might not end well. But the quote was picked up as one of Time magazine’s quotes of the week, by NPR’s weekly news quiz, and elsewhere. The Times actually reran it in two subsequent articles, and I began to get congratulatory emails from around the country. When Micki Maynard inserted it into a Times article, she had originally written, “quipped Toyota spokesperson Wade Hoyt.” An editor in the paper’s News Department informed her that he had changed “quipped” to “said” because “no one quips in The New York Times.” Beautiful!
Over the years, the publishing scene has changed radically as the Internet has undermined the printed page. Newspapers that have managed to stay in business have often laid off their automotive editors and reporters, replacing them with syndicated articles at much less cost. Many of those journalists have started blogs of their own and continued to bring informed opinions to a reduced audience.
On the industry side, Marketing departments have begun to exert more influence over PR, which used to be a separate if unequal department. And the latest trend in Marketing is social media. Most auto companies now have internal departments and outside agencies helping them to identify online “influencers.” These bloggers and tweeters now qualify for loans of test cars, sometimes coaxed into them with swag like designer sunglasses, tote bags and gift cards. A few of them are knowledgeable auto enthusiasts who can write about our products with authority. Some do their homework on a particular vehicle and write credible reviews. But others just spew out such mindless blather that I wonder how much credibility they can possibly have. And you have to wonder if a 140-character tweet ever influenced a car sale. Social media experts talk about thousands or millions of “impressions,” but what exactly is an impression?
When I was Project Editor of the Complete Car Care Manual at Reader’s Digest, I brought in several copies of the “buff books” (Road & Track, etc.) to prove to the Copy Editor that brake disc is not spelled with a “k” and tuneup is not two hyphenated words, at least not in the automotive world. Other editors marveled at the level of the writing in these magazines, its felicity, sophistication, humor and creative use of vocabulary. I don’t see much of that in most blogs, which tend to be annoyingly mawkish and self-centered.
If I’m starting to sound like some bitter old fart railing against a modern decline in standards, I need to point out that I’m not bitter. Just callin’ ‘em like I see ‘em.
In any case, I have little interest in or presence on social media. Being a fairly private person, I have serious privacy concerns about Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and the rest of it, so I don’t indulge. Basically, this part of the new PR world has passed me by, so I’m just going to bow out gracefully while I can. As my Uncle Nick used to say: “Enough is too much!”
Besides, I’m a lot older than I hope I look, and it’s just time. I’ve had a good run and it’s mostly been fun. I’ve been lucky enough to spend most of my working life doing work that I love. I sincerely thank everyone who made that possible.
So here I go, off into a third chapter of my life. Wish me luck (just please don’t tweet it!).
(To get in touch with Wade on anything but Toyota business, try: firstname.lastname@example.org ).