The Tom-Tom: Al Vinikour

Al Vinikour is a Chicago native but a Detroiter for a few decades. He has walked along many streets in autodom and seems to enjoy them all: salesman, publisher, writer and sometimes PR representative.

Those Were The Days, My Friend

by Al Vinikour

A dangerous and short-sighted trend has hit automotive public relations…and the auto industry in general and it’s already starting to bite management in the ass. I’m talking about massive shedding of senior people, the only employees who have any inkling of corporate history and what has, or hasn’t worked in the past. I suspect the theory of this headcount reduction is “these senior people have been around too long, are too cynical and cost more than new hires.” This scenario is further compounded by employing “hired guns” from outside the industry to run public relations. The operative word is “outside.” The inoperative word is “run” because inexperienced PR people in high places can do a lot of harm real fast.

When I entered this business in 1968, there were by today’s standards an ungodly number of public relations professionals employed by the auto industry – most of them by the Big Four (American Motors was still part of this mix).

However overstaffed they may have appeared to a bean counter, the PR departments ran as smoothly as a fine Swiss watch. Seemingly an anathema to current business practices, phone calls were always returned before the end of each day (or else!) and there was genuine respect between the public relations and journalism community. If you want to add yet another ingredient, the writing “back then” was first-rate. On both sides, practitioners had paid their “Typewriter Jockey” dues. Most worked at a wire service or small weekly newspaper and had a curmudgeonly editor who seemed to have an unlimited supply of red ink. By the time he (most editors were men) edited the first draft it looked like open-heart surgery gone bad. But the reporter learned to write, quickly and to high standards of style and accuracy – and to make the subject come alive. When he or she progressed into larger publications or the public relations field their writing skills were finely honed and their appreciation for deadlines was sacrosanct.

Today, most college graduates don’t want to spend time going down that difficult and low-paying path because they are college graduates, after all. So…they go directly to an advertising agency or public relations firm and want to be an account executive right away. That way they can quickly make vice president and feel they’ve arrived. Meantime, their copy is being edited by someone who took the same career road. After a couple incarnations of this you have the equivalent of the in-breeding of the Royal Family – journalistic insanity. In some cases the writing is barely above, “How are you? I am fine.”

One would think that this sudden dilution of vocational depth would be noticed. But it’s often not the case. With the public relations business running on empty and relying too heavily on journeymen and journeywomen for creative and management services, professional courtesies have taken a back seat and it’s doubtful they’ll ever return. “Being just good enough” seems to be the accepted norm.

I don’t want to give the impression I’m sitting on a high horse with a laptop and want to sweep an entire generation or two into a generalities dust pan. Somewhere out there are some very talented young people who actually care about their profession and their personal career growth. Sadly, in a lot of cases, many organizations don’t invest the time nor the resources to give incoming recent graduates the polishing and mental toughness they need. Truth be told, if they don’t have the innate skills, dedication, work habits, thick skin and people skills, no amount of training is going to elevate newcomers to the level of those who do have them. But as said earlier, the “mentor-types” are quickly disappearing and even though it appears the “out with the old, in with the new” philosophy contributes to the bottom line it’s not a permanent fix – nor is it one that makes short- or long-term sense.

It used to be that the “old generation” trained the “new generation.” Unfortunately, with mass downsizing rampant in the corporate world, more and more the “new generation” is teaching the “new generation.” In the fast-paced world of automotive journalism and automotive public relations home schooling doesn’t work. On the job training, in many cases, is marginally good or actually maliciously bad for the organization.

The work of auto journalists and their corporate counterparts is only going to get more important as new media emerge and seasoned pros step aside for a new generation. Right now we are seeing this happen all around us, begging the questions:

  • Will the new ways be better, the same or worse?

  • What can, and should be done to re-do the business for the future?

All this conjecture makes one wonder if there really is a future that can provide good careers and needed service to such a vital part of our economy. If it weren’t for “the good old days” we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It’s often said that “the future is ours.” There won’t be a future if we ignore the past.

 Tom-Tom rants, raves, rambles and ruminations are volunteered and express the opinions of the writer.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Mary Jane Maxwell

    Dear Al, It is like you are riding in my car with me. Love your column. I do have a beef today though. I am a 72 year old women, who has been driving since I am 13. In your column of March 7, 2011 you referred to Grand Marquis drivers ( I drive a Chrysler 300), slow-moving farmers,and old people as problems, and I couldn’t agree more. However, it isn’t just those people who won’t move over or pull out in front of you. It is everyone. I had a guy in his 30’s pull out in front of me, and no one was behind me for miles, he mad e a left turn, I had to slow down from 45 mpr, and he flipped me off. I didn’t even honk, just shook my head. I drive a lot, and it is every race,creed, color, young and old who don’t know how to drive. I think the people who teach them how to drive ( high school teachers, driving school instructors) need to be tested, before they can teach someone how to drive. I asked my grandchildren if anyone ever taught them that the left lane is for passing only. Their reply was no. I rest my case. Keep riding and writing. Thanks Mary Jane Maxwell

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