SBJ/20100830/This Week's News

NASCAR retools its communications

NASCAR is set to announce major changes in its business structure this week that will establish an upgraded communications department with new leadership.

The significant shift in approach is the result of a four-month study led by consultancy Taylor, much discussed within NASCAR circles, which showed a void in the sanctioning body’s marketing communications effort.

CEO Brian France, who commissioned the study in March and worked closely with CMO Steve Phelps and Taylor managing partner Brett Jewkes on the restructuring, called the changes transformational.

“It’s going to change the way we do business,” France said.

Global firm Korn/Ferry International has been retained to search for a chief communications officer that would be part of NASCAR’s senior leadership and report to Phelps. Overall, the sanctioning body could add as many as 20 new positions to a media relations staff that already employs about 25 people.

Brian France sought a model that
was better suited to the evolving
media landscape.

The restructuring is centered on the creation of an integrated marketing communications department, which will oversee all the media relations and communications functions for NASCAR’s racing series.

Members of the communications team will be embedded in other departments, such as consumer, brand and corporate marketing, in an effort to broaden and help NASCAR’s communications efforts evolve both inside the sanctioning body and with the sport’s teams, tracks and sponsors.

Ramsey Poston, NASCAR’s managing director of corporate communications, will leave the organization at year’s end and will not pursue a role in the new integrated marketing communications structure, NASCAR said.

Jim Hunter, a longtime NASCAR executive and the vice president of corporate communications, will move into a new role as vice president of special projects.

No other personnel changes were announced.

The new chief communications officer will run the division and a No. 2 position, either a vice president or managing director, will assume the role of chief of staff.

“Things are changing so fast on the media landscape, especially in digital media,” France said. “Our [media relations] model was designed to be more of a service bureau rather than something that could attack all of these things that are evolving. Now we’ve got the right road map to address an ever-changing area and we’re putting a significant amount of resources against it.”

The move comes at a time when the sport has been the subject of a number of national news stories focusing on declines in attendance, sponsorship and TV ratings. Privately, team executives have wished in recent years that NASCAR would take a more proactive stance in its messaging around some of these areas.

Under the new structure, the communications department will be separated into seven divisions: competition, stakeholder relations, digital and social media, brand/consumer marketing, corporate marketing/licensing, NASCAR Media Group/entertainment, and public affairs/crisis communication. Multiple hires will be made in each of those divisions.

NASCAR placed particular emphasis on stakeholder relations, digital and social media and brand/consumer marketing.

The chief communications officer most likely will come from outside of motorsports and could come from outside the sports industry, Phelps said, and will be someone with broad consumer marketing communications experience on global brands.

“This is not going to be an SID from somewhere,” Phelps said. “This will be a leader in the communications business in strategic thinking, creativity, someone who’s a proven and trusted brand thinker.”

NASCAR hopes that its new structure, through its stakeholder relations division, will work more closely with teams, tracks, sponsors and media to present a more unified approach to communications across the industry.

“Communications are how we deliver our sport to the fans and serve our media partners, so these moves are right on target,” said Marshall Carlson, president of Hendrick Motorsports. “I’m really impressed with Brian’s vision in this area and a commitment to make significant investments when it’s difficult to make investments.”

Phelps said the new integrated marketing communications structure is similar to those employed at ESPN and Yahoo!. Sports leagues have also looked deeper into changes in their communications groups and sought nontraditional representatives as they place more emphasis on their messaging. The NFL recently hired Paul Hicks from Ogilvy PR, and Ari Fleischer, with a background in politics, was retained by the BCS.

Meanwhile, MLB public relations executive Rich Levin is leaving the league after 25 years, and the NCAA is searching for a vice president of communications.

The Taylor study, which was executed with three other agencies — Catalyst, Motiv8 Digital and MitchellCanyon Communications — surveyed close to 300 people from media, teams, tracks, the sanctioning body, sponsors and marketing agencies from March through June. The results showed that NASCAR’s public relations efforts at the track and around the competition operate at a high level.

But the study also delved into how NASCAR reacted when challenged by a difficult economy and sagging TV ratings. It asked about NASCAR’s messaging and its ability to present unique stories to various media groups. NASCAR did not specify what specific media outlets it hoped to reach more effectively with the new structure, but Phelps mentioned business and entertainment as genres that can be better served.

“We’re going to be building a different approach with a different leader,” France said. “This will also be a big part of pulling the industry together in a much more cohesive way.

“Our sport by its nature is a fragmented group of owners, drivers, agents. While there’s a certain benefit to having such a group of entrepreneurial thinkers, the truth is we can do better. We can pull all of these people together.”

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