Contract talks between the UAW and the U.S. automakers officially kicked off this week with three grip and grin handshakes-across-the-table photo ops before the two sides retreat to the process of collective arguing..er..bargaining. The real fun, however, doesn’t really start until the contracts are about to expire on Sept. 14th.
The first contract talks I ever covered were in 1990. As the contract expiration neared and talks revved up, my CNN crew and I, along with several dozen other journalists camped out in the press room at the old General Motors headquarters on Second Avenue in Detroit where we expected to stay until the white smoke, or some other signal let us know the two sides wore each other down and agreed to a new pact.
This was all new to me, as I’d only been covering the auto beat since being transferred to Detroit from Atlanta the year before. I quickly learned an important thing about covering the talks–GM had a kickass catering department. Knowing we would be bored stiff cooling our heels for hours on end waiting for an agreement, or breakdown, the kind folks at GM kept us fed..and fed..and fed. Every few hours more food would arrive–chicken, steak, snacks and of course, the most popular item, Dove Bars. Oh yes…all the Dove Bars you could lick, slurp or swallow. The only thing never served up–was news.
So we hung in there all day, all night, filing whatever updates we could gin up to keep our editors and producers happy. In between, to keep from going stir crazy, we’d play cards and then a crazy game one of my producers made up called “Slug Charades.” For those not in the biz, a slug is a story title. At CNN it was important to make up a catchy slug for your story because sometimes that would be all it took to sell the piece to a show producer in Atlanta. So we passed the time acting out some of our more clever slugs while the rest of our bureau crew attempted to identify it. The other scribes in the room just assumed we’d OD’d on Dove Bars and would need to detox eventually on GM catering’s tasty rice pilaf.
Well into the second day we got an urgent call from out national assignment desk in Atlanta. “Get the hell outta there! A ship blew up in the Saginaw River near Bay City!” No problem. We got our parole but someone needed to stay back to keep an eye on the talks, so we left one of our bureau staffers and told him to let us know the moment anything happened either way–and off we went…but not before a local TV reporter who had evidently lost her mind from all the waiting around could not believe we were bolting and yelled out, “what the fuck! You have to stay! We all have to stay! You can’t leave us behind!” Alas we just smiled…well..smirked…and took off for the two hour drive up to Bay City where we knocked out a few live shots, fed a package and high-tailed it back to Detroit where, back at GM, the two sides were still going at it. At least that’s what we assumed since we hadn’t heard from our guy who was holding the fort.
Knowing we had someone on-site, our desk told us to go home for a few hours, catch a few winks, take a shower, change our clothes. Early the next morning our guy left at GM rings my phone. He was from Georgia. “Hey Eeeeeeddddddddd! Somethin’s weird. No one’s in the press room anymore! Ah dunno whut’s goin’ on!” Shit. I told him to call up to the GM press office, which he did, then called me back to inform me, “sheeeeeeet! All I did was close mah eyes for a bit and they freakin’ came to an agreement while ah wuz sleepin’! What should ah doooooooooo?” Hmm…find another job?
Well, yes…there was no one in the newsroom anymore because….THEY WERE ALL UPSTAIRS AT A NEWS CONFERENCE ANNOUNCING THE CONTRACT SETTLEMENT!
Luckily, CNN had four affiliates in Detroit at the time so once our national desk realized Sleeping Beauty had napped through the breaking story they were able to quickly arrange to grab the live signal from one of the stations.
The rest of us had to hustle downtown to the bureau, which was two blocks from GM, and crash together some sort of reporter package.
We were all just glad it would be, at the time, three years until the next round of talks. Oh…nothing could happen, right?
Our wedding anniversary is September 15th–the precise day the contract would expire. 1993 marked our 20th anniversary. Kinda special, right? I spent most of it at Ford World Headquarters, “The Glass House,” instead of celebrating our big anniversary at home with my wife and kids. CNN was sensitive to this and was kind enough to agree to fly in my predecessor in Detroit, Bob Vito, from L.A., where he was now stationed. After all, he had many years of covering contract talks. The plan was for Bob to spell me for a bit so we could at least go out to dinner, then I would return to Ford.
Heh. I waited and waited and waited and waited and Vito doesn’t show up until around midnight. “Where the hell were ya?” I ask. “Oh…I just really needed a Lafayette coney dog, it’d been a long time.”
Whatever. I finally got home for late night drink and toast. Better than nothing. Of course all is not fair. Along with all the other journalists I had been going stir crazy at Ford for almost 36 hours with nothing. Then my guy, fat and happy with his belly filled with coneys strolls in and an hour or so later they reach an agreement.
The last talks I covered for CNN were in 1999 and this time we were holed up at the basement press room at the Chrysler headquarters in suburban Auburn Hills, Mich. Again…nothing to report for hours and hours and hour but we were always well fed, which just made us more sleepy.
You know that thing about history repeating itself? Yeah..it’s not bull. Nine years after being wrenched from GM to cover the Saginaw River explosion we get an urgent call from the Atlanta desk. “There’s been a church shooting in Fort Worth, Texas! Multiple deaths. We’re throwing a ton of resources at it, so get the hell outta there and head to Texas!”
Uh…sure. By the time we could get our gear packed and down to the airport, which was at least an hour’s drive away, and then down to Fort Worth, what really would be left to cover? But we did as we were told, hustled to the scene and I was instructed to stand in front of a camera to do a live shot. I stood there for an hour when some producer said, “eh, don’t really need ya.” The next day we were assigned a follow up piece. Filed it and another producer said, “eh, don’t really need that.” So we took our toys and flew back to Detroit to continue covering the contact talks but…well, you know the ending…they settled while we were en route and CNN had a reporter from one of our affiliates do a live shot.
So…the final tally on that one? Got wrenched from covering contract talks to fly 1,500 miles to cover a shooting story that in a town where CNN already had a bureau and crew that did a fine job handling it when it broke, so our work was not needed and in the meantime missed the big finish to the story we should never had been told to vacate.
I covered one more set of talks in 2003 when I was the GM beat writer for The Detroit News. This time I was allowed to see it through and no one napped. But times had changed significantly since 1990. Despite my strongest hankerings there wasn’t a Dove Bar to be found.
Personally, I wasn’t happy when they named it the Dart. We had a history. The good part was I passed my driver’s test in my brother’s ’65 Dart. The bad news is when I inherited that lemon during my senior year in college, first I got into an accident that crushed the trunk, then I decided to make a little $$ by offering a rides home and back for Thanksgiving break. The Dart would have none of it. Somewhere on Route 17 in the middle of the Catskills the Dart decided “no mas!” At least for a few hours while it took a long break on the shoulder and mocked me as I sprayed something into the carburetor that was supposed to cure what ailed it. My passengers were not amused and by the time we limped onto Long Island many hours later, they rather brusquely informed me they would find another ride back to school. The Dart appeared to have felt flush with victory at the news its mopey passengers wouldn’t be making the 300 mile return trip, and performed flawlessly on the way back.
We’ve enjoyed an unseasonably warm winter so far, but more powerful than El Nino, able to leap stationary fronts with a single low pressure system, able to bend the patience of steel-minded journalists…it’s the North American International Auto Show! That means snow is on the way, along with torrents of news and a deluge of drivable dreams under the Cobo canopy in downtown Detroit.
Truth be told there aren’t many surprises since the automakers generally give away the news in advance on an embargoed basis so their stories will show up in the morning papers. What’s left to wonder is what kind of swag awaits reporters who will do their best impressions of Ronda Rousey to fight for a free logo-embossed pretzel they can sell on eBay.
I worked the show for four different employers. I spent the longest time with CNN as the Detroit Bureau Chief. For a few consecutive years we produced special programs with the titles of “Route 1992, 1993, 1994, etc.” Production teams would traipse up from Atlanta and spend most of the week crabbing about the cold weather and the fact there wasn’t a Krystal burger joint in site. When one producer who had helmed a couple of these shows was finally re-assigned he got on his knees and..stayed there.
When I was the National Auto Writer for the Associated Press it was me against everyone. I thought I had a scoop when the then head of marketing for one automaker (I won’t say which because I work there) spilled the beans on a new incentive program. I later asked the CEO about that and his face got very red when he sputtered, “well he didn’t clear that with me!” “He” soon cleared out his office.
At the Detroit News, where I was the GM beat writer, I was told I had to come up with a lead story for the next day. We were in one of those hated group sessions with the GM CEO. No one was getting anything so I pulled the trigger asking him to react to the fact that Toyota would soon overtake the automaker as number one in sales. Let’s just say he became very unhappy, but coughed up the quote and I made my nut for that day.
Now that I work for an automaker, my main job is to make sure our stuff wins coverage, particularly from broadcast and digital media. It’s fascinating to be on the other side of the battle lines. I’ve come to appreciate the skills professional PR people need to hone to do their jobs properly, although as a former reporter, I can’t help telling a reporter who asks if they can get an interview regarding the new “Chrysler Impala” the view must be very dark inside their hindquarters.
Indeed, I look forward to the most important auto show of the year…seeing old friends, eating new shrimp and smiling at the nice young ladies offering mints as I tell them, “No thanks. I’ve breathed my last breath.”
I never intended to stay for 10 years..or even two. I just wanted to take a short break from news, try something different, then return to the streets to hunt and write stories. But what happened instead was the opportunity to build and develop a team in a corporate setting that pioneered the concept of “corporate journalism” by developing an in-house digital newsroom complete with field crews, reporters, social media channels and feeding into our top-rated media website.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. That isn’t the job I hired on to do. I was hired to launch, manage and be essentially, the ghost writer for then PR chief Jason Vines who wanted to start a new blog aimed directly at automotive journalists. Jason wanted an auto writer in that position who understood the business of both autos and journalism. So, feeling restless after three years of covering General Motors for The Detroit News I though the job sounded like fun and a nice short-term break from news. Blogging was still also relatively new with lots of promise for corporate use, so I wanted to get in on this emerging form of communication.
We called the blog TheFirehouse.biz, named after the Detroit firehouse Chrysler always turned into a bar and grill exclusively for reporters and guests during media preview days at the North American International Auto Show each January. The blog was an extension of the firehouse’s purpose of building relationships with the media.
TheFirehouse.biz made an immediate impact for two reasons. One, we broke every rule of blogging by only allowing working journalists entry to the site. That won us universal hatred from self-appointed “experts” who said there are no rules in blogging, then tried to hold us to one.
Second, we took on issues no company would touch, especially in a news release. The most impactful was one where we pilloried so-called “Big Oil” for artificially propping up fuel prices. That piece appeared, or was cited, in more than 2,000 publications and websites. Indeed, it was the lead story in the next day’s The Detroit News.
I remember giving a speech at a PR conference in Wiesbaden, Germany introducing European corporate communicators to TheFirehouse.biz’s unique “voice.” During the Q/A session one gentleman asked, “how do you get away with such repugnant rhetoric?” Then at lunch he sidled up to me and whispered, “I am so jealous of you. Congratulations!”
But that was just the beginning of our pioneering journey into a unified digital newsroom. About 10 months after launching TheFirehouse.biz we did our first product reveal via live webcast. Since there was no department dedicated to this, it fell in my lap. About this time I had applied for the long-vacant broadcast communications manager” position and before even being hired, was given those duties. I was promptly told by the person who temporarily held that responsibility the entire budget for the year was blown..and it was July!
That sparked the next chapter. With no money to hire a production company to create a video news release for an upcoming story, nor funds to finance distribution, we purchased a small mini DVD camera from a big box store and shot it ourselves. YouTube was just emerging and I thought, what if we just posted the VNR for free and sent out the link to the media? Well..that worked out pretty well since it cost us nothing to distribute the video and we won coverage as a result. All of a sudden my portfolio was growing , but I had no idea how much bigger it was going to get.
Mike Aberlich, who was second in command, had a brainstorm that would change my life and open the door to everything we accomplished over the next 10 years. He told me that not only would I be hired for that broadcast job, but since I had been a journalist in basically every medium- TV, radio, wires, newspapers, blogging-he’d create a team that would merge all of those disciplines and make me the head of it.
Our new team, Chrysler Electronic Communications, also included the company’s media website. Over a period of several months we stepped up our video production activities and instead of simply shooting video or soundbites for the media to use, we created self-contained stories and features that could be posted on websites. We called what we were doing “corporate journalism” long before the term was co-opted by PR agencies and “experts.” A simple video feature explaining how a waterfall we used at autoshows that created the words “Jeep” and various shapes won over a million views on YouTube.
We then created a weekly video recapping Chrysler news called “Under the Pentastar,” named for the company’s trademark. The name was changed in 2014 to “FCA Replay” when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was created and use of the Pentastar was discontinued. The feature has won awards from Women in Communications, PR News and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).
In short order we created three new positions called “Multimedia Editors,” who are essentially reporters embedded in the company. They cover beats such as brands, corporate matters, labor, technology , and are responsible for creating social media and video content as unique stories, or to create a multimedia package that augments news releases. Our Multimedia Editors, accompanied most times with a videographer from our team, cover stories the same as a field crew at a station or network. Our content is available for any media to use and is also posted on our blog, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube channels. It can also be found on our groundbreaking site, FCA Content on Demand, which is a constantly changing aggregation of internally and externally produced content that contains company news, features, blog posts, product reviews and videos.
All video we produce is hosted on our in-house video portal found on our media website, making it quick and easy for journalists to find the content they need and immediately download it.
Rounding out our multimedia activities is our Livestream webcasting channel, “FCA Live” and regular use of the smartphone webcasting apps Periscope and Meerkat.
Our evolution from a single blog to a self-contained, media website/social media/video production/ corporate news organization was only made possible by a team of creative and courageous individuals who never say “no” to trying new ideas and have the talent and skills to execute them successfully.
Our team is now called FCA Digital Media, but our mission is the same as it’s always been—contribute to the company’s success by creatively and strategically using digital means to communicate the value of its products, technologies, policies and people.
It gives me great pleasure to think about all we’ve accomplished as a team over the past 10 years. But that was then. We’re not nearly done.