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.
From: Ezra Dyer
Sent: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 10:25 AM
To: Mike Vanderslice
Subject: Re: STI’s New England’s Presence
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,
On Jun 30, 2009, at 1:51 PM, Mike Vanderslice wrote:
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 Vanderslice, CEO
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.
Thanks for that thought.
I am getting a variety of other inputs and will respond to all in due course.
Mike Vanderslice, CEO