For decades Journalism and PR have endured a chalk and cheese relationship: “There’s an essential tension that is caused by the constantly shifting balance of power- a classic love-hate relationship” (Barry, 2002, 60). Focusing on this delicate rapport, this paper explores the reporting of the 2009 Aston Martin Cygnet city car project and its reception within UK media. Contextualizing the use of PR and media coverage shall also see me explore historical and contemporary examples within the automotive industry, ultimately emphasizing the interrelation of these two industries.
Like many young boys, Corgi’s Aston Martin DB5 with ejector seat was a favourite toy of mine. It represented everything an Aston Martin should be, cool, sophisticated and unlike a full size DB5, was affordable. The Corgi DB5 helps convey many notions about Aston Martin and its successful alignment with the James Bond phenomenon. It also suggests its positive portrayal within the media, something we shall expand upon later. To begin we must look at the brand within recent contexts and changes of ownership. In turn we shall introduce the 2009 Cygnet city car project, exploring the influence of PR and media coverage whilst also interpreting how successful the venture has been juxtaposed to other mediated brand developments.
Aston Martin: Old and new
Mention Aston Martin to any petrol head and connotations of ‘power’ and ‘beauty’ usually ensue, we can live without the ‘Soul’ Aston likes to add. Founded in 1913 by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford, the company has had a succession of varied owners, most recent of which included Ford in the nineties before being sold to its current English led consortium in early 2007 (Prodrive, 2007). In the words of its founder Lionel Martin, the company aims for: “A quality car of good performance and appearance for the discerning owner-driver with fast touring in mind, designed, developed, engineered and built as an individual” (Aston Martin Life, N.D). Quite how far this statement can be traced to the Cygnet project is an area of contention we shall save for later.
Since the company’s change of ownership in 2007, positive press coverage has adorned the brand, even through times of economic uncertainty with the company sacking a third of its work force (Car, 2008). The focus of this coverage strayed from the central topic of redundancy, to Chief executive Ulrich Bez saying: “we remain confident that the Aston Martin brand is the strongest it has ever been – with dedicated design, engineering and an award-winning product range, we remain well positioned for the upturn in the economy” (CAR, 2008). This is the starting point on which to understand the importance and spin of good PR, acknowledged by Byrne; “An organization’s communication strategy includes- along with clear messages to distinct audiences- the conscious aim of positive media coverage” (Byrne, 2000, 123).
Before examining the Cygnet project it is worth drawing attention to the remarkably positive portrayal of Aston Martin across various UK print, broadcast and online media sources. A quick flick through old car magazines or a look at online sources shows how favorably and to heart the automotive media seem to take the brand. In its latest review Autocar online stated of the four-door Rapide: “The most elegant four-door sports car in the world, and then some. One that Aston Martin should be rightly proud of” (Autocar, 2010).
Since the 2007 takeover which was lead by Prodrive chairman and CEO David Richards, the company has seemingly managed to keep the media on side and supportive of various model developments, V8 Vantage, DBS and the newly launched Rapide. In the words of Chief Executive Officer Dr Ulrich Bez, “Aston Martins are truly special, always have been and always will be” (Aston Martin, N.D). But arguably this notion extends further than just the cars. Examining the 2009 Cygnet project will enable me to divulge further into the relationship between the media reception of the project and the PR approach to it. In turn this will emphasize the dominant roles both PR and journalism play in shaping automotive success, acknowledged through varied case studies along the way.
The Cygnet debate
Badge engineering is no new revelation in the car industry, but the thought of an Aston Martin/Toyota tie up almost sounds laughable. That was until June 29th 2009 when the PR team at Aston martin delivered a shocking press release: “The Innovative Commuter Concept Car; ‘Cygnet’ by Aston Martin” (Aston Martin, 2009). Many automotive hacks thought April fools had come twice (Autoexpress, 2009) and seemingly couldn’t believe what they were seeing. But the project was no joke and subsequent Press releases proved the Cygnet was going to be a production reality. We must now examine not just the project but more importantly the PR approach to it and the frenzied media response that followed.
Critically engaging with the initial press release by Aston Martin and resulting UK media coverage allows for interesting analysis around wider PR. The studio teaser shot and well phrased terms such as “luxury commuter concept” and “exclusive solution for urban travel” (Aston Martin, 2009) imply a lot about the PR strategy to the project. These methods place journalists within the firm control of Aston Martin’s PR operation, a relationship Barry acknowledges within wider PR: “The balance of power shifts all the time within the PR-Journalist relationship, depending on the circumstances” (Barry, 2002, 60). This tight use of language and restrictive reporting reveals a cautious PR strategy, but more than this it acknowledges the controversial nature of the project in relation to ones perception of the company as a producer of beautiful sports cars.
Subsequent reporting within UK automotive media confirms this corporate control through using terminology lifted from the press release and the teaser image, in Autocar’s case being photo-shopped in colour (Autocar, 2009). From this perspective it is worth acknowledging the use of early blogging. With little information released by the tight lipped PR team, various motoring hacks blogged on the Cygnet. Steve Cropley of Autocar was one of the first to offer his view with the blog “Keeping an open mind on the Aston Martin Cygnet” (Autocar, 2009). He suggested the project would “polarise opinion like no other Aston model in the marque’s 96-year history” (Autocar, 2009), later offering rational behind the models existence. Further blogs such as Gavin Green from CAR alleged further thinking behind the project: “Maybe this is a clever way to boost Aston’s green government credentials, a big issue when your corporate CO2 average is about the same as Boeing’s” (CAR, 2009).
No further project details where issued until December 2009 with a second press release, acknowledging and building upon various speculations from within the automotive media. For instance it gave both an interior and exterior shot and added “The Cygnet concept represents a creative, environmentally conscious and highly fuel efficient solution, now combined with the prestige of Aston Martin’s luxury brand ownership” (Aston Martin, 2009). Although short, the underlying message from the release in my view is the importance of keeping the press informed and on side. From the first press release the automotive industry was drip fed project information at a rate that ran the risk of gaining poor publicity; a fine line between having powerful PR and disenfranchising your media. Following the hesitant reporting after the first release and months of speculation, Aston Martin understood the moment in which they needed to keep the media onboard, an area Byrne builds upon: “By being prepared a PR can also be in a position to safeguard a company from the diverse effects of possibly bad publicity” (Byrne, 2000, 123).
With early 2010 bringing the hype of the four-door Rapide, a third press release was issued in early March, this time being a lot more reactive to automotive industry concerns. To start it confirmed the thinking behind the project and tried to allay fears from the automotive world about the firm loosing its way, with CEO Dr Ulrich Bez stating: “Our past, our future and our backbone will always remain sports cars, but the Cygnet will support this by offering customers a greater degree of freedom in the urban context” (Aston Martin 2010).
Throughout the Cygnet coverage questions over ‘who needs who’ have arisen, something Barry acknowledges: “It is perhaps obvious why PR needs journalists, but why should Journalists need PR?” (Barry, 2000, 61). Firstly the coverage confirms that if conducted well PR can be used to manage mediated coverage. Further than this the press releases confirm the fine balance between control and keeping your viewer on board, as Barry explores: “PR isn’t just about ‘selling’ a story: It’s also about fulfilling a genuine media requirement” (Barry, 2000, 61).
With this notion of ‘media requirement’ the March 2010 Geneva motorshow provided the automotive world with its first hands on experience with a Cygnet. What the coverage provided not only allows us to critique media perception but also how Aston Martin PR tried to portray the project prior to its public debut.
Cygnet: Into the fire
Let’s be clear that the relationship between PR and Journalism is never an easy one. The initial Portrayal of the Cygnet city car gave little away to the automotive media and reflects a highly controlled PR operation, suggesting a lot about the corporate way of thinking and controversial nature of the Cygnet. The media response at this years Geneva show allows a great opportunity to judge the success of both the project and Aston martin’s PR operation. Following the unveiling by CEO Bez, the UK automotive media wasted no time in airing opinion on the project. Andrew English at The Telegraph wrote “Outrageous trashing of a famous marque, or opportunist way of making money out of well-heeled Aston owners?” (Telegraph, 2010), whilst Autoexpress dubbed the project the “Craziest car the brand has ever made” (Autoexpress, 2010).
The automotive media response certainly confirms Barry’s notion of the “constantly shifting balance of power” (Barry, 2002, 60), with the media essentially in control of the public relations at Geneva. It also emphasizes the fact that although the two industries can work together, they very much work apart when in individual interests. The coverage also allows us to highlight notable historical and contemporary case studies.
Notable brand developments
The Cygnet may be unique in its purpose of creation, but it certainly isn’t anything new in terms of how a brand has taken a new model venture. The last decade has seen some dramatic changes to the automotive market and within this section we shall contextualize the Cygnet project alongside some recent and historical case studies, in order to emphasize the significance of good PR and media relations.
An early example of good PR media relations and making an opportunity work has to be Audi in the eighties with the 100 (and its drag coefficient of 0.29) alongside its Quattro four wheel drive system (Audi, N.D). Prior to the 100, aerodynamics had been of little consideration to car manufactures and four wheel drive was for a 4×4. Previous to this Audi was viewed as more solid than exciting and the firm grabbed the PR opportunity with a commercial that changed perceptions forever (YouTube, N.D). Looking back at the commercial now it seems like a through back in time, but certainly depicts how simple PR and marketing can be very effective in mobilizing a positive media response. In the subsequent years the company built upon the ads underlying impact and pushed the Quattro system with further media campaigns that ultimately changed the thinking behind performance cars forever.
A more recent depiction of successful PR within the media has to be that of the 2001 MINI. A name so revered in the automotive world new owner BMW had an unimaginable task of presenting its incarnation to the media. But its range of forward thing PR activities were rewarded in 2002 when the MINI corporate communications team was recognized for this use of creative PR at the Institute of Public Relations Awards, winning ‘Best In-House Public Relations Team in the Commercial Sector’ category. Judges stated:
“Although the launch of the new MINI was much anticipated, there was plenty of room for negative comment and failure to live up to expectations compared to the cult status of the Mini in its heyday. However, a UK PR launch strategy based on demonstrating the MINI’s appeal to all demographic groups by targeting lifestyle magazines, tabloids and the broadcast media, not just motoring press, paid off in handsome sales pre-advertising” (Asofherts, 2002).
The media reception to the Cygnet project must be broken down in order to understand the relationship between PR strategy and media response. First of all the controlled PR by Aston Martin conveys notions of the brand and corporate identity. It acknowledges the projects distinctly different nature compared to the company’s heritage, implying that the PR team understood media reception may misinterpret the thinking behind the project, an area within wider PR that Jefkins acknowledges: “Some corporate images can be simple and distinct; it is less easy to establish an image for some which have a diversity of business” (Jefkins, 1988, 321).
What the PR also allows us to conclude is the effectiveness at Aston Martin’s attempt in linking the project with the brands heritage. For instance phrases like “The Cygnet Concept demonstrates the high levels of detail design and craft that are integral to every Aston Martin” (Aston Martin, 2010) imply conformity with a corporate image. However much this is emphasized it is ultimately the media reception that allows us to conclude on the projects success and understanding of the great PR/ journalism relationship.
More than anything the media reception to the Cygnet underlines the continual shifts in power between PR and Journalism, as explored earlier. It also confirms that the two rely on one another, but in this case that the automotive media response at Geneva will have an inevitable impact on Cygnet perception. Maybe more than anything the underlining message from the media is confusion behind what Aston Martin hopes to achieve from the project. In my view the overall media response suggests that the Cygnet, although unique in its thinking, could ultimately damage and dilute one of the world’s most iconic brands. A fear the PR strategy clearly wants to avoid.
With this in mind the coming months will prove crucial for Aston Martin. Previous brand extensions such as MINI gained overwhelming acceptance through the media thanks impart to the use of successful PR. But the Cygnet highlights that although PR strategy plays a crucial role in determining public and media response, it is the world of Journalism that can still make or break. In the case of Cygnet the reaction by automotive media makes the ability of successful PR essential in combating any critique by journalistic customers’. The launch of Cygnet later this year will ultimately reveal if Aston Martin PR can once again get the automotive media on its side, or if this great power struggle between these two industries is set to continue.
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