It has been a very strange summer.
The national lockdown really hit journalists, PR departments and dealerships together with manufacturers in a way no one could have expected as we celebrated the arrival of 2020 in January. It was tough then with the global economy faltering and looming emissions issues putting clouds over the country and along came the Spring Shutdown which has wiped billions from incomes and really put the brakes on some projects while it’s accelerated others.
The lockdown and changing world has challenged everyone in the industry in different ways and their creativity has either shone or sunk. For many writers, working from home has been the norm at all times and a few PRs have been sharing themselves between office or home for a while but were then furloughed and even allowed to do charitable work. I know some big PR departments which have been sent home for the foresseable future and they may no longer need to go back into offices on a weekly basis.
The regional lockdowns have meant dealers in some parts of the UK are affected more than their colleagues or identical franchise outlets a few miles away and this will be a concern for businesses going into the traditioinally quiet autumn and winter months, so we may see still more redundancies and pent up demand.
Manufacturing has taken a big hit and there is only so much they can do to mitigate the effects with suppliers and line side issues to be addressed. Now we have the ominous approach of Brexit coming over the eastern horizon and that is arguably the biggest challenge for the industry to face, even dwarfing that of dealing and coping with Coronavirus-19.
The manufacturers and their PR departments have been bailing out their businesses to stop them sinking without a trace and it has worked because nearly all of them are still functioning in a fashion, but in a different set of clothes and their main accessory is a lifebelt from parent companies and local governments.
The simple truth is the automotive sector is simply too big to let it fail and put millions on unemployment registers.
Up to a point, in my opinion, the motor industry has a strong case to seek and secure state aid, but it also has been slow to change and identify new technologies which it really should have been embracing and employing some years ago. It was cheaper to keep making models people bought rather than limit their supply and encourage customers into the new technology.
Bad decisions have been taken and there has been no sense to some we have seen possibly because senior managements have adopted the concept that they know better than anyone, except possibly their competitors who have adapted, how to meet the challenges.
We have seen some PR managers effectively caving in to the situation and accepting Coronavirus-19 as the cause for the collapse whereas others have been far more agile in coping with it and enterprising in what they do. Social distancing has meant the fewer events now been staged are more limited, more complex but also stretched over longer periods of time and even those held are not as useful for most journalists. Video conferences and meetings are more common but you need to drive a model for a reasonable distance to form an accurate opinion. Otherwise a writer can get a distorted view, both good and bad, of a model and that’s not good for the writer, the PR, car maker or the public.
With less product out there to test a really enterprising car maker might seek the opportunity to actually increase their fleet so more journalists were offered models to test with the latest refinements and flood the pages and webspace with coverage of them, at the cost to their rivals. Making the loans of these vehicles longer than usual would also ensure less strain on their press garages or agencies preparing them and the goodwill this would engender is really priceless.
As to events, well one award winning and very small PR team came up with a very clever bit of on-line PR which was a cheese & wine evening for journalists and included a product presentation and update as well.
So, the Coronavirus-19 lockdown has actually freed up some creative thinking and shows what can be done with a modest budget if its handled well.
Robin is the longest serving chairman of The Western Group. He’s been vice chairman or chairman for over ten years and oversees the annual Western Group PR Driving Day each summer assisted by the group committee and supported by group members.
He contributes to a number of outlets in Wales and the UK, including the Driving Force editorial syndication agency feeding the biggest regional news and feature publishers in Britain.
Robin specialises in the Welsh automotive sector and motor related businesses with interests in Wales and publishes WheelsWithinWales.uk which covers news, features, trade and motor sport in Wales.