Ezra Dyer and STI Exchange

I got an interesting e-mail the other day. It was from an editor at the Improper Bostonian Magazine, where I’ve been on staff for nine years. It seems that someone pitched them a car column. While the Improper covers cars in an annual feature package, there’s no regular car column, which is what this enterprising individual was hoping to establish. I don’t begrudge anyone a pitch-my view is that it’s an open market, and if I’m afraid of someone treading on my turf, then I should step up my game-but this proposal did not come from an impetuous journalist looking to set up a gig.

It came from STI.

Near the beginning of the e-mail, forwarded to me by my editor, they get right to the point: “We are contacting you with hope we can provide you with an additional stimulating column to your already excellent publication.” The fact that they made this pitch to someone other than myself could mean one of two things: Either they’re so ignorant that they don’t know that I write for the Improper Bostonian, or they know I write for the Improper but tried to go over my head in the hopes that the promise of free cars would lure an editor there to assign himself a car column. Based on the following paragraph, pasted verbatim from the STI e-mail, I’d wager on the latter.

Here’s STI’s explanation of the bargain: “STI Fleet Services is a twenty year old automotive media company that centers on networking new test model vehicles with the public. It’s our job to make sure the media receives these vehicles for reviewing purposes. Our Boston office would like to provide The Improper Bostonian with a fleet of vehicles for their journalists to pick and choose from to test drive. At no expense to you, we provide the pickup and drop off deliveries for all of our vehicles. Insurance, fuel, etc. is not a concern as it is covered in full by our clients. These same patrons are those that have asked us to reach out to select publications for such reviewing purposes; we would like to include The Improper Bostonian in this collaboration.”

Out of curiosity, I asked my editor to e-mail back and find out what brands, exactly, STI had to offer, since the existence of a Boston office and an attendant fleet of cars was news to me. They replied, “In a nutshell, we represent all import brands; we do not represent GM Ford and Chrysler.” Just as the existence of the STI Boston office was surprising to me, I’m sure it’s illuminating for all the import manufacturers to learn that they’re maintaining an STI fleet here.

This whole scenario, as constructed by STI, is incredibly bizarre. Generally speaking, an aspiring writer gets in touch with the manufacturers, who then talk to the fleet company to arrange test cars. I’ve never heard of a fleet company trying to foist cars upon a publication, unasked for, under the guise that they have a directive to do so from their “patrons.” Somehow I doubt that manufacturers are instructing STI to knock on random doors and say, “Hello, would anybody here like to write about some cars?”

STI’s e-mail also presumes that the Northeast PR people who I work with on a regular basis explicitly gave instructions along the lines of, “Wow, we’d really like to get some coverage in the Improper Bostonian, but we have no idea who we’d talk to there. You should call the front desk and ask the receptionist if anyone in the office knows anything about cars.” (This, by the way, is literally what happened-the receptionist referred STI’s cold call to the managing editor, who passed the ensuing e-mails on to me.)

Really, there are so many press cars sitting around the STI “Boston office” that there aren’t enough publications to cover them, and so they have to try to create new outlets themselves? This approach obviously has mixed results, as evidenced by the Portland Phoenix’s Porsche Boxster review. Here’s the writer’s explanation of how that came about: “Through no effort of my own, a man I had never met drove that car – number 296 out of 1960 ever made – into the office parking lot last week, and handed me the key. When he had called out of the blue offering the car as part of a Porsche marketing and promotion effort, all I’d done was tell him I’d drive it and return it in one piece. I made no promise to write about it, and only a vague verbal assurance that I could drive a stick-shift car.” I can’t blame the guy. Hey, free Porsche.

Porsche, at least, is consciously pursuing the cold-calling strategy with STI. But I’m curious to hear from everyone else. Either the import car companies have really decided to draw names out of a hat for reviews, or STI has gone Colonel Kurtz in its interpretation of its own authority. In the meantime, if anyone wants to pitch a car column at the Improper, let me know. I can put you in touch with someone.

Update – July 2nd, 2009
OK, I didn’t want to get into a public back and forth with STI. And that wouldn’t be necessary, if they’d simply set the record straight on the primary subject of my original letter. When they called the Improper Bostonian to offer cars, they claimed they were doing so at the behest of their clients, the car companies. The STI public response to my letter reaffirmed that faulty premise-thus precipitating a back and forth between myself and STI CEO Mike Vanderslice. Essentially, I asked him to correct the misleading information in STI’s response. He said “thanks for that thought.” It’s been a couple days now, and I don’t see any correction forthcoming. I don’t know what information STI is putting out there at this point, but this e-mail exchange pretty clearly illustrates the schism between their claims and reality. I didn’t want to have to elaborate on this tedious subject, but at this point it doesn’t seem that STI is ever going to clarify anything on their own. So you can read this and draw your own conclusions.

-Ezra

—————————

From: Ezra Dyer
Sent: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 10:25 AM
To: Mike Vanderslice
Subject: Re: STI’s New England’s Presence

Hi Mike,
I’m just curious to know which clients, specifically (other than Porsche) asked you to start cold-calling publications in Boston and offering cars. Because you’re implying to the manufacturers that got your e-mail, here, that everyone else is on board with that. I’ve heard from a bunch of them that tell me that this certainly is not the case. Best,
Ezra

On Jun 30, 2009, at 1:51 PM, Mike Vanderslice wrote:
Hi Ezra,
Our outreach program is based on the idea that all manufacturers can benefit from an expanding base of automobile journalists.
We think that ultimately our responsibility is to assist our customers in getting their brand message into the market, and that an expanded base of automobile journalism can facilitate that.
No more, no less.
I hope that helps.
Mike

________________________________________________
Mike Vanderslice, CEO
Mike,
Well, then perhaps you should send a followup e-mail to the manufacturers to clarify that. Because you pretty clearly stated otherwise in your e-mail to them. This doesn’t say that you’re embarking on an “outreach program” based on your own notion of what might benefit the car companies; it says that multiple manufacturers explicitly told you to pursue this strategy:

> These clients have seen that they can generate the right kind of media exposure with transparency and accountability, and have asked to use our Boston office for their press vehicles in lieu of delivery from New York.

-Ezra
Ezra,
Thanks for that thought.
I am getting a variety of other inputs and will respond to all in due course.
Best regards,

________________________________________________
Mike Vanderslice, CEO

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Thanks for picking up the STI-NEMPA flap in the 07.2009 newsletter. It appears that under recessionary pressures, STI tried to do an end-run around NEMPA and shotgun press cars out under the table to unqualified outlets. This was not only without our knowledge, but also without the knowledge or permission of at least some of the car makers. Furthermore, sending ‘black market’ press cars into New England means taking them away from somewhere else, to the detriment of media and vendors in those regions.

    At NEMPA, we’ve worked together very well for many years and are able to offer high-quality automotive coverage across the Northeast and sometimes nationwide. The system works; let’s continue to play by the rules, especially now, when the stakes are so high.

    Silvio Calabi

    NEMPA
    SCI
    IOSH

  2. STI seeks to “create” journalists by supplying cars to unqualified wannabes to gain a foothold in New England, a rather stupid — an risky — business plan. Cars get trashed in the hands of children. STI’s motivation appears to be more vendetta-oriented than profit-oriented — why are these guys so angry at John Lawlor?
    What people don’t seem to realize is that in New England it’s the journalists who call the tune; NEMPA created the delivery system; Automotion implements it and implements it very very well. We are not at all receptive to change; we remember all too well the “old days” when cars came willy nilly if at all according to no schedule whatsoever.
    If you don’t like what NEMPA does, STI, then stay the hell away. And if you want to create journalists, I suggest you open a journalism school –somewhere other than New England.
    Why auto companies allow their press fleets to be shuttled away from legitimate journalists in NY, NJ and elswhere to foment trouble up here is a mystery to me. Wake up, you people!
    John R. White, Boston Globe auto editor emeritus, NEMPA prez emeritus

  3. I am shocked and troubled to learn of STI’s tactics in New England. I read the Portland Phoenix article that Ezra quoted and was only further dismayed. To add insult to injury, after having worked in Washington, DC, I was saddened to learn earlier this year of the “merger” between STI and A&M, which resulted in numerous layoffs of people I considered friends. Pat, Telmo, and everyone at A&M in Baltimore are missed. I think we were all a little disturbed by how this “merger” went down.

    I leave you with a little saying that we’ve probably all heard. It was a saying that my Papa used and one that I now borrow from time to time: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Such is the case in New England and such was the case with my friends at A&M in Washington, DC, before they were out of a job.
    –Nate Chapnick
    Senior Editor, The Courier Group

  4. I find it sadly curious that STI, et al, is conducting an outreach program – at the alleged behest of automakers with their alleged backing – yet won’t provide the verifiable evidence to back it up. Are there that many automakers, in today’s recessive economy, eager to place vehicles – such as a Porsche Boxster that gave joy rides to teenyboppers in a Maine parking lot – in the hands of an unknown? That STI sticks to this tripe is laughable, not laudable.

    Clearly Mr. Dyer’s editors at the Improper Bostonian, and anyone else who has a modicum of rational and common sense can see STI’s “outreach program” is a thinly – and poorly – veiled underhanded, end-run around Dyer; NEMPA; New England’s long-time and proven delivery company: Automotion; and promotes what appears to be a new economic stimulus program that may be better called “billing whilst shilling” at the automaker’s financial trough.

    That STI can not, and will not, provide the most basic and honest account of who, what, where, when and why casts itself in a very poor, dim light. It seems they’re caught with their hands in the carmaker’s cookie jar.

    NEMPA has its own verified and vetted media outlets and journalists.
    If you want to reach them, why not reach out to us?

    None of STI’s diatribe comes close to passing the sniff test and reeks of ulterior motives and moral turpitude.

    This reminds me of an old lyric from a song by The Who “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss … won’t get fooled again.”

    I hope the automakers take The Who’s lyric mentioned above to heart.

    Gerry Miles
    NEMPA Charter Member
    Two-time NEMPA President

  5. As another thought to STI’s stone-walling and avoiding all simple,
    direct answers to questions of the same … isn’t it curious that
    to wit not one of the automakers that STI purports to represent
    has stepped forward to acknowledge that Mr. Vanderslice was
    indeed acting on their behalf?

    Not one automaker has stepped up to effectively say,
    “yes, we feel that our car … (using the Porsche again to illustrate)
    has not enough brand recognition, admiration, or consumer-based
    aspiration … so we’ll have a PR firm hand them out like M&M’s to
    no-name journos who have never written an auto review in their
    lives and don’t have to promise to, either. That’ll boost the brand!”

    It’s one thing to toss journalists review copies of CDs, books, and
    a pass to a concert with limited – if any – liability for the artist
    and PR firm. But, handing over the keys to any vehicle – never mind
    a high-end sports car as illustrated in Maine – carries a higher
    degree of responsibility as well as liability.

    Seems like common sense to me, but then again, I may just be
    using my old New England/Yankee way of thinking.

  6. I am puzzled by what I am reading. As a Philadelphia area autojournalist (Millville, NJ), I have been well served by STI. I, too, was saddened by the A&M merger, as there were a number of folks at A&M who I considered friends, but I was also saddened when A&M took away Chad Hagerty’s business many, many years ago, and I believe that Chad was a pioneeer in press car prep and delivery. That’s business. Likewise, when GM axed Jim Rooney after all his years of service, I was personally unhappy, as I considered Jim a friend, but, again, that’s business.

    As for Porsche handing out a Boxter willy-nilly to a potential auto journalist, I have feelings of chagrin. Over the 25 years I have been reviewing cars, Porsche has been the most parsimonious about giving out its cars especially to smaller newspapers like the ones for whom I have been writing. (The last Boxter I drove was from Gary LoPInto at Sarizer, but that was many years ago.)

    As an IMPA member, it is puzzling to me how NEMPA has its own delivery affiliate, but then, I learn something new everyday.

    As a South Jersey journalist, maybe I’m being an interloper commenting on a New England matter.

  7. Business is business….I don’t know much about auto journalism but I do know what free enterprise is. The economy is a mess, and the auto industry is hurting. Many companies are going out of business, laying people off, merging and consolidating. You have the the right to say what you want here, just as this company has the right to pursue business where they choose.

  8. Ezra, it has been valuable reading the discourse between you and your colleagues on the subject of STI’s recent entry into the New England media market. I think it is important to share “our” side of the story to bring balance.

    First, a few responses to posted comments:

    No, this is not a vendetta against John; it’s about business and fair competition. The A&M merger was a business transaction, important to both parties in these difficult economic times. Blending two companies into one meant eliminating duplication that effected A&M and STI employees alike, unfortunately.

    If NEMPA members will not take vehicles from other vendors there “are” other writers (and not children or unqualified “wannabees”) with legitimate media outlets that will.

    STI proudly represents 25 auto manufacturers in 14 cities across the country and provides jobs and careers for over 250 people.

    STI is in good standing and a working member of every writers group (except NEMPA) in the country.

    STI has been in business for 20 years as a partner to automotive PR.

    We are not “bad guys” trying to do whatever we are being accused of, we are trying to compete in a market that has been all but shut off to competition. And finally yes, the monopoly that NEMPA has fostered is “broke” and needs fixing.

    The real issue in Boston is that many if not all of the current NEMPA members will only accept a press vehicle from John Lawlor. This sends a clear message that a manufacturer “must” do business with John; that there is no other method to reach NEMPA otherwise. Boston is the only media market in the country that operates with a sole press fleet vendor.

    To date, we have assisted our national account clients in Boston through John rather than opening our own facility. Recently, John formally joined our competitor’s network, leaving us without fair representation, making it necessary for us to enter the Boston market. John knows this situation well and made a clear business choice to pursue this direction. As you know, other suppliers have attempted to do business in Boston to be all but run out of town. This whole thing is pretty straightforward to me, it’s about competition and competition is good for everyone.

    We are officially up and running in Boston providing a viable option for press and marketing fleet needs with absolutely no other “hidden agendas”. I can assure you that we will operate fairly and professionally with the media and manufacturer’s best interests in mind. We look forward to your professional and fair cooperation for all business moving forward.

    I will do my very best to keep you informed to whatever degree you wish. Please let me know if you need additional clarification on our objectives in the Boston area.

  9. After reading the dialog regarding media fleet services in Boston, I felt I needed to add my comments.

    A&M Specialists, Inc., founded in 1974 by Don Morton and John Spears, was the first company to offer media fleet management services to the automotive industry. During the early days our services ere based in Detroit and utilized the assistance of friends and family when needed in other media markets. Companies like Specialty Transport, G. Schmitz & Associates and ESTI evolved from relationships with A&M as either vendors or employees.

    Don and I began discussing retirement options that needed to include identifying a strategic business partner to continue providing service to our clients and employment for most of our employees. The requirements of our clients for web-based fleet management data systems, uniform standards and practices, cost containment and strategic vehicle placement made a merger with Specialty Transport a natural fit for our needs and those of our clients.

    Media fleet services in Boston have always been challenging for the automotive PR representatives. A&M attempted a satellite operation many years ago, but facing the difficulties of coordinating vehicle placements with NEMPA members, closed it office. Through the years request continued to come from our clients for a creative solution to fleet management in this region of the country. The time for a change has come and Don and I have every confidence in the ability of STI Fleet Services, Inc. to satisfactorily provide first-class service to the media and its clients in Boston, and nationally. We support the changes that are coming and recognize that competition is always good for business.

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