May 22, 2020 Heather Wilson

The Future of Automotive PR

The entire automotive industry, everything from supply chains and production to marketing, sales and customer service, has undergone a radical transformation over the past decade. Automotive public relations — the strategies and tactics that internal marketing teams and firms like Kahn Media use to promote products and services — has undergone a radical transformation as well. We still write press releases, pitch stories and cultivate relationships with media outlets, but in the modern digital era of social media and an accelerated news cycle, there is much more to it than that.

Manufacturers and the entire automotive aftermarket industry must compete for the attention of targeted consumers, who are bombarded with ads, emails, text messages, reminders, news alerts and countless other distractions. The old days of placing an ad in a magazine and waiting for the sales to come in, or sending out a press release and waiting for it to be picked up, are long gone. We’re in the era of Media 3.0, which requires working with traditional media outlets as well as influencers, forums and online communities while also deploying highly targeted digital marketing campaigns and creating and distributing owned media like newsletters and blogs.

If you want your product or service to get the right exposure in this day and age, then you need to have the right strategy — or better yet, the right set of strategies — to cut through the noise and reach your target consumers.

How do you do that? To make sense of it all, we need to know how we got here so we can better understand where automotive public relations is headed. Believe it or not, what we’re dealing with today is a lot like the early days of automotive marketing and public relations.

Early 1900s: The Legend of Henry Ford
Few figures in the automotive world are as legendary as Henry Ford. He didn’t invent the car; he invented the assembly line production process that allowed cars to be produced in mass quantities and sold at affordable prices. Henry Ford was also a tinkerer, an engineer and a visionary, and early on he made money and earned notoriety by building cars that won races.

With an innate sense for the value of promotion and publicity, Ford built a race car in 1901 powered by a 26-horsepower engine that was steered with a crude metal bar. He won a race against Alexander Winton and used both the prize money and the resulting notoriety to get backers to help him start the Henry Ford Company. A year later, in 1902, Ford got frustrated and sold his stake in the firm to partner Henry Leland, who eventually renamed the company Cadillac. Ford moved on and used his notoriety to found the new Ford Motor Company, which introduced the Model T in 1908 and went on to sell millions of them, which helped Ford become one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world for more than a century.

From the early 1900s until after WW2, automotive public relations was fairly quiet and a dedicated automotive marketing agency was rare. The automotive industry matured, new cars were released and they were promoted through advertising campaigns. Newspapers and magazines were focused on what made headlines — stories about industry tycoons, results from high-profile races and so on. There was paid media (ads) and, from time to time, earned media (articles, radio broadcasts, etc.), and for decades not much changed.

1948-2009: The Golden Era of Automotive Media and PR
What most people think of automotive public relations, or the work of an automotive marketing agency, started with Robert E. Petersen. After WW2, Petersen worked as a Hollywood publicist, and in the summer of 1947, his firm was hired to promote a hot rod exhibition held the following winter. After the war ended, tens of thousands of GIs returned home, they had money in their pockets and they needed an outlet for their adrenaline and creative energy. Inexpensive Fords were everywhere and young men started cutting, chopping and lowering them, experimenting with how to make them go faster, and racing them.

The late ’40s was the era of guys like Vic Edelbrock, Alex Xydias (So-Cal Speed Shop) and Ed Iskenderian (Isky Racing Cams), brilliant mechanics and machinists who didn’t have the time or inclination to promote their fledgling businesses. Petersen, who, like Henry Ford, had an innate sense for promotion and publicity, saw a golden opportunity. Hot rodding had an image problem. It was considered an activity for hoodlums and hooligans; there was no media coverage; and there was high demand for parts and advice.

Petersen left his firm and, with Robert Lindsay, created Hot Rod magazine. They printed 10,000 copies and sold them at the Los Angeles Hot Rod Exhibition, the same show they were initially hired to promote. Hot Rod was a smash hit, and by mid-1949, monthly sales exceeded 50,000 copies. That’s the same year that Petersen launched Motor Trend magazine to focus on new cars.

Thanks to Robert E. Petersen, the era of enthusiast media was born. As Petersen’s empire grew, competitors emerged and dedicated automotive marketing and public relations agencies evolved. From day one, the relationship between the automotive aftermarket industry and automotive media outlets was unique. The traditional line between church (editorial) and state (advertising) was blurred. Instead, there was a symbiotic, supportive relationship between the automotive industry, the editorial staffers at magazines and the advertising sales teams. They needed each other, and automotive PR firms helped facilitate the process to ensure the appropriate balance between earned and paid media.

For the better part of 60 years, it worked, and it was very profitable. The entire automotive industry flourished. OEMs became global behemoths, aftermarket companies grew into large businesses that became household names and Robert E. Petersen eventually sold his media empire for $450 million. In 1994, Petersen and his wife, Margie, donated $30 million to establish the Petersen Automotive Museum, which has become one of the most prestigious car museums in the world.

2009-2020: The Evolution of Automotive Media and PR
With the advent of social media and the digital age, automotive public relations and the media industry it served began a rapid transformation. Once platforms like forums, blogs, Faceback and YouTube became global phenomena with hundreds of millions — and eventually billions — of users, companies no longer had to rely solely on third-party media outlets to write about their products and services. Anyone could install and use a product and write a post on Facebook or upload a video on YouTube.

Barriers to entry fell and the entire automotive media and advertising business model changed. And this paradigm shift coincided with the Great Recession. The old Petersen model of a full portfolio of specialty magazines with a large editorial staff and high overhead, all supported by ad sales (subscription fees barely covered the cost of printing and postage), was no longer viable. OEMs and automotive aftermarket companies looking to cut costs during the recession slashed their advertising budgets, and some of the ad dollars that remained were siphoned off to pay for online advertising.

The audience also changed. Young people grew up with the internet, and they had little interest in print magazines. They wanted engaging, entertaining content, and they didn’t want to pay for it. High-production values were no longer necessary. Someone with a GoPro and strong opinions could get more views on YouTube than a traditional media outlet that paid for a full video crew. And the DIY video felt more real — it was a story viewers could easily relate to.

As the automotive media advertising model changed and the audience changed, magazines were forced to reduce their page counts, print fewer issues per year or, in some cases, abandon print altogether and go online only. With fewer editorial pages, fewer issues and fewer magazines, product reviews and news sections got sacrificed, reducing opportunities to get stories placed.

People have been saying for years that print is dead. Print isn’t dead, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. But print has changed. The era of dozens of automotive magazines covering every possible niche are gone; only a few major titles and a handful of specialty titles are left. It has been replaced by an era of low-circulation, high-quality journals that are like coffee table books. These are magazines for discerning connoisseurs, with thick card stock covers, top-quality paper and high-quality design, photography and writing. They are published several times a year instead of monthly and a subscription will set you back $50 instead of $10. They have ads, but they also feature sponsored content, where the vehicle or product manufacturer works hand-in-hand with the publication to create a lifestyle story rather than just a review.

In the current era of Media 3.0, an automotive PR firm needs to understand the evolving landscape of media, the changing news cycle, the right mix of earned, owned, and paid media, and it needs to have the resources and persistence to make it all work. Automotive public relations is still relationship based. Kahn Media works with mainstream media like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. We also work with news sites like MSN and Yahoo. We work with automotive enthusiast media outlets, both in print and online. And we work with influencers, Facebook Groups, forums and other online communities.

The key to success is identifying and engaging with a segmented, targeted audience. If you’ve just launched an application-specific product for 2011-17 Ford Mustangs, you can’t run an ad or get a product spotlight in 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords magazine because it no longer exists. So where do you find owners of 2011-17 Mustangs? A shotgun-style social media campaign will just get lost in the cacophony of online noise. You need a well-executed, two-way conversation with an engaged audience, and you can do that by working with “superfans” in online communities or with micro influencers who have an organic, passionate group of followers.

Influencers are “citizen journalists” — enthusiasts with applied knowledge and vocal opinions who are willing to share what they know with other people — just like the passionate young GIs who returned home from the war and launched the world of hot rodding and the automotive aftermarket industry. Some of those GIs launched magazines or became staff writers or built businesses. Today’s influencers find their audience on Instagram and YouTube, and the best of them will become industry icons in their own right. 

A perfect example of what automotive PR looks like in 2020 is the Petersen Automotive Museum, which was founded by the man who launched the Golden Era of automotive media and public relations. When the museum was forced to close to the public due to the pandemic, it pivoted and reinvented itself as a global resource for automotive digital content with virtual tours, online learning programs and a series of engaging videos. When Monterey Car Week was canceled, the museum stepped in to fill the void with a virtual Petersen Car Week.

At every step of the process, we worked hard to spread the word, and stories were picked up across a wide range of mainstream and enthusiast outlets. The “E-Petersen” also thrived, driving engagement across social media and dramatically ramping up both fundraising and membership efforts. 

The Petersen recently invited Brian Scotto, a member of the influential YouTube channel Hoonigan, to spend a “night in the museum” — all by himself. Armed with some GoPros and a tripod, Scotto created a series of 30-minute segments that went live on YouTube, going out to Hoonigan’s 3.4 million subscribers as well as thousands of others. By working with an influential channel on YouTube, one of the most prestigious automotive museums in the world has been able to connect with an entirely new audience.

But that doesn’t mean brands always have to work with major influencers to get the reach or audience they used to get from working with a print publication. Empowering your own fans and followers to generate content that promotes your brand — also known as user generated content or UGC — is a tremendously powerful strategy in the era of Media 3.0. For example, when the quarantine forced millions of parents and kids to stay home for weeks on end, Kahn Media client Quadratec, a leading retailer of Jeep parts and accessories, wanted to find a way to encourage Jeepers to work on their rigs. We created the #HandsOnHomeschool campaign that rewarded parents for working on their rigs with their kids. All they had to do was post a photo or video of the family working on their Jeep projects and use the designated hashtag, and in return they received a cool set of matching parent-and-child Hands-On HomeSchool T-shirts. The result was hundreds of posts, tons of excellent content and with third-party credibility and positive PR in a time when it was needed most.

The Way Forward: Automotive Public Relations in 2020 and Beyond
In the world of automotive PR — of telling your brand’s or your company’s story to the right audience — you have to be engaging, entertaining and transparent. You have to say “this is what we do, this is why we do it and this is why you should care.” And you have to be real. You have to be authentic. PR isn’t advertising. Advertising is the exchange of money for exposure, and while it is predictable in terms of repeatability and reach, it doesn’t have the authenticity or implied endorsement of earned media. 

PR is developing an innovative campaign, working hard to get the message in front of the right people (media, influencers or even fans/followers) so it will get picked up through persistence. Not everything sticks. Not everything lands the right way. The news cycle or the timing or the tone might not be quite right. So you learn from it, you tweak it, you try again and when it lands, it has a much bigger impact as earned media than as paid media.

There used to be just a handful of channels, but now there are nearly infinite ways to get your message across. Think about it this way — in the Golden Age of automotive public relations, companies like Petersen Publishing were a fire hose. If you turned on the valve, coverage would come rocketing out and fill your “bucket” with sales very quickly. That fire hose no longer exists, and even if it did, the hydrant system that feeds it provides a trickle rather than a blast of pressure. 

Brands can either keep standing around waiting for water to come out of the fire hose, or they can use a dozen different garden hoses and fill that sales bucket up just as fast. It takes more work to manage the dozen garden hoses, but each one is effective in its own way and the redundancy means even if one stops working, the others continue to fill the bucket. 

Those garden hoses are everything from your own social media channels and blogs to working with influencers, managing user-generated content, working with automotive reporters in the mainstream press and coordinating with the vertical and enthusiast media in its many forms. It takes more work and more coordination to ensure the message is consistent, transparent and authentic, but if you offer a good product or service and can keep those garden hoses flowing, the result is more powerful than ever as consumers continue to shift to a preference for direct and online sales.

If that’s too much to handle internally, it might be time to work with an agency. If you need help, send an email to and we can start turning on those garden hoses for you.