Editor’s note: In September, the RV Industry Association made a decision to end a long-term contract with the firm that has managed the RV industry’s public relations effort for more than 20 years. This three-part series explores where the industry’s public relations program is headed and who will be orchestrating the industry’s public image. Part 1 explored the reasons behind the change. Today’s section describes the team effort required to support the industry’s public relations effort.
By Greg Gerber
Editor, RV Daily Report
BJ Thompson, chairman of the RV Industry Association’s Public Relations Committee, told RV Daily Report the RVIA staff did a tremendous amount of work to support the PR program in the past and that the staff worked as a team with Barton-Gilanelli, the firm that managed the industry’s PR effort for 21 years.
Consequently, he feels confident the RVIA staff can handle the public relations program going forward.
“They (Barton-Gilanelli) may have come up with an idea or a plan and even develop the approaches to getting it done,” said Thompson. “But who gets the ball to rush with it, who hands the ball to the next player, who threw the ball or blocked, and who made the touchdown — that’s part of team work.”
Thompson said the success of the industry’s PR effort was the result of a collaborative effort between Barton-Gilanelli, the RVIA board, the PR committee, the Go RVing committee and other key players in the industry who stepped in to play a role from time-to-time.
“If we got a real nice article in a major national publication, or a mention in something else that was valuable to us, who do you point at to say they did a good job? The team,” said Thompson.
He cited the RV centennial celebration as a perfect example. Thompson noted that Fran Connors, one of the Barton-Gilanelli staffers, came up with the idea as an off-handed remark that other people quickly jumped on to support.
“Barton-Gilanelli did a lot of work to coordinate that project, but I was a local liaison for the celebration and had a lot to do with it as well,” said Thompson. “I helped develop the time capsule, the fireworks display and the anniversary cake. Al Hesselbart (the historian at the RV Hall of Fame) and I worked with the Jeopardy team to research questions at the Hall of fame and to help with scripting for the show.
“Barton-Gilanelli may have started the ball rolling, or even pitched it, but they were not the only people to pull it off,” said Thompson.
Frank Gilanelli, a principal at Barton-Gilanelli and Associates, vehemently disagreed with that idea, noting that his agency staff came up with the idea and presented it to the RVIA PR Committee as a way to unite the industry when it was really hurting and create a great deal of media attention in a down year.
“We drafted the entire plan about how it should be structured and BJ simply executed our plan. Then LaBella and RVIA tried to take credit for the program,” said Gilanelli. “That’s ridiculous, but indicative of the problem we were having.
“About 99 percent of the wonderful creative stories about the RV industry came out of our agency in Philadelphia,” said Gilanelli. “The extent of RVIA’s involvement in the success of the PR program was to send out a press release saying, ‘Look at what RVIA did.’
“In the case of the centennial, once RVIA saw that the industry was liking the idea, they jumped on the bandwagon,” said Gilanelli. “The media tour was our idea. Ringing the closing bell on Wall Street with photos of the RVIA executives on the Jumbotron was our idea. So was the idea for a tour in which RV historian David Woodworth to take a new RV and an antique RV on a nationwide road trip.
“For RVIA to take any credit for the centennial celebration is like taking a map of the United States and putting a pencil mark on it and claiming, ‘Here’s our contribution,'” said Gilanelli. “We said the industry should throw a big party and do fireworks and have a big birthday celebration in Elkhart.”
Gilanelli passed on dozens of e-mails to RV Daily Report claiming to support the idea that Barton-Gilanelli, not RVIA, was the driving force behind the centennial celebration.
“The idea of 100 tweets — factoids about the RV industry — was our idea. We developed each tweet. They simply copied and pasted it into Twitter,” said Gilanelli.
James Ashurst, RVIA vice president of public relations and advertising, told RV Daily Report his staff is capable of working with media sources directly, without the aid of a public relations firm. He is also confident the RVIA staff will be able to drive the message to consumers via traditional media efforts.
But, even if the work proves to be too demanding, Ashurst said indicated he is comfortable managing outside consultants — an approach he employed when working as the vice president of communications at the Travel Channel that worked effectively for that company.
“The public relations committee and RVIA board share my confidence in the staff’s ability,” said Ashurst. “Having their support is very important. They supported the idea of creating efficiencies where we could and reshaping the focus of the PR program.”
Gilanelli questioned Ashurst’s record at the Travel Channel, suggesting that Ashurst was laid off around the time it was sold to Scripps Howard. “I have been in the profession longer than Ashurst has been on the face of the earth,” said Gilanelli, noting that some conversations between the two were awkward at best due to the vast differences in experience held by each person.
Ashurst told RV Daily Report he left the Travel Channel in November and started at RVIA the first day of the 2010 National RV Trade Show. Scripps Howard refused to confirm Ashurst’s employment history to RV Daily Report. But, Gilanelli said that if Ashurst’s approach to using freelancers was a “proven method” for improving the financial health of an organization, it didn’t work at the Travel Channel.
An article appearing in Bloomberg Nov. 5, 2009, noted that the sale of the company was due to a bidding war between two firms. It did not note any financial trouble or insolvency as a reason for the sale.
But, when asked to describe the specific qualifications of the RVIA staff to handle the industry’s public relations image, Ashurst declined to do so. “I am not going to bow before unnamed people who question the capabilities of a talented group of people,” he said.
Gilanelli said he is not surprised RVIA doesn’t want to go into the specific backgrounds of the PR staff. “Kevin Broom was a speech writer before becoming RVIA’s director of media relations. Courtney Roby was a producer at some TV station in West Virginia before she became RVIA’s PR manager, and Chris Morrison (senior director of marketing communications) has never picked up a phone,” he explained.
Gilanelli noted that not once in 21 years did the RVIA staff do a proactive media pitch to a consumer publication. “We would come up with ideas and write a tantalizing pitch that would motivate the media to do a story,” he added. “The RVIA staff does not have the capabilities to do what we did. It is really a sad situation for the RV industry.”
He cited the RVIA’s vehicle loan program as a prime example of the association’s ability to mismanage a positive image-building program. Each year, the RVIA would convince RV manufacturers to lend the group a fleet of RVs that “media people” could use and write stories about the industry, Gilanelli explained.
“We would create interest among reporters to take a vehicle out in order to write a story,” said Gilanelli. “Unfortunately, the RVIA staff had already scheduled the units for their personal vacations. So, RVIA would wind up renting an RV for the reporter to use.
“That meant an RVIA employee would be using the nice, fully-loaded motorhome lent by one of the manufacturers, and the reporter would be in a bare bones RV rented from El Monte, Cruise America or some other source,” he explained. “When it was time to write the story and give publicity to a manufacturer, guess which company got the press? The rental firm.
“And there wasn’t an RV that a writer used that didn’t break down during their trip,” he added. “We became very adept and convincing them not to write about it,” said Gilanelli.
The RV industry’s public relations program was the envy of corporate communications executives, he explained. Other trade associations would often call Gilanelli’s office to find out how they could generate the same level of publicity for their industries as Barton-Gilanelli did for the RV industry, he said.
In addition to the RVIA staff, Ashurst said he can rely upon members of the association’s public relations committee; many of whom are senior level executives at RV-related companies. Not only do committee members play and advisory role, they also help shape the direction of the industry’s message, he said.
“I consider the PR committee members to be very bright, creative minds,” Ashurst explained. “Before making a decision, I also consulted with RVIA President Richard Coon, Go RVing Co-Chairman Bob Olson (who is chairman of Winnebago Industries), and RVIA Chairman Gregg Fore (who serves as president of Dicor).”
Some other long-term members of the committee also participated in the decision-making process to end the contract, including Mike Gast, vice president of communications for Kampgrounds of America; Chad Resse, director of marketing for Winnebago Industries; Amy Coleman, former director of marketing for Fleetwood RV; and Thompson, who chairs the RVIA PR committee.
Thompson said there was no foregone conclusion at the onset of the review process to discontinue the contract with Barton-Gilanelli, at least as far as he was concerned. Once the decision was made, Barton-Gilanelli was notified almost eight months in advance that the contract would not be renewed at the end of the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.
“We told them that the contract, as it existed, was not going to continue in the same form and that we were looking to make some changes,” said Thompson. “We didn’t know exactly what those changes were going to be. All we knew is we wanted to modify the arrangement and go into a different direction.”
Thompson, who runs his own advertising agency, said he understood the situation and appreciated the long-term relationship with Barton-Gilanelli. “Being on the client side of the desk for 40 years, I had a unique perspective,” he explained. “I have lost accounts over the years and for not very good reasons. I felt for Frank in a deeper way than many of the others did.
“I understand the dynamics of a client-agency relationship,” said Thompson. “I was probably the voice that would temper the approach to discontinue the contract, or at least seek to modify the relationship and what we wanted Barton-Gilanelli to do or not to do.”
Thompson also praised Barton-Gilanelli for the job it did in supporting the association for 21 years. “I have tremendous respect for Fran Connors and Jon Tancredi in particular because they were out in the trenches. They knew the industry and its key players and they understood the nuances of the industry,” he explained.
“But, because of the economy, we felt that it was incumbent upon us to see if we were getting the best value for everything we were doing,” said Thompson, who noted that Ashurst came from a background that utilized freelancers which resulted in some savings.
“We had built up a tremendous intelligence bank in Fran and John and we needed to be careful that we weren’t making a snap decision,” said Thompson. “Over a nine-month period, we looked at how to implement freelancers and the pros and cons of doing so compared to using a dedicated agency.”
Gilanelli disputes that claim suggesting that the people making decisions on behalf of RVIA have no experience in marketing to consumers, and that the decision was made because of the agency’s close ties to LaBella.
In fact Gilanelli noted that RVIA did not include anyone with direct consumer marketing or PR experience on the search committee that eventually selected Ashurst for the job. He was shocked that Thompson was specifically excluded from the search committee despite his 20-plus years of chairing the association’s PR committee.
Gilanelli thinks the primary, unspoken reason for terminating his contract with RVIA came down to the fact that Barton-Gilanelli was a favorite program of LaBella and that when he was forced out of RVIA, others in the association wanted to rid the group of any vestige of his programs.
He claimed to be present at a secret meeting with Coon in a Philadelphia train station where Coon started asking pointed, personal questions about LaBella and his relationship with the agency.
“Six days later, Gary announced his resignation, and it is no secret that RVIA lawyers were talking to other vendors, including the Richards Group (which develops Go RVing creative) about what was going on,” said Gilanelli, who would not speculate on the reasons for LaBella’s sudden departure.
“It is no secret that Gary and Richard Coon didn’t exchange birthday cards,” said Gilanelli. “After forcing Gary out, Coon wanted a clean sweep. He wanted someone in that position he could control, and he got him in James Ashurst.
“I found it funny that if LaBella was truly retiring, as had been suggested, that he was not involved in selecting a replacement for his position,” said Gilanelli. “That would be like excluding the retiring vice president of engineering from some company who knows the job and its characteristics, and preventing him from influencing who should get the job.”
Thompson disagreed noting the PR committee was involved in the decision-making process. “The people who eventually did made the decision on who to hire were advised by people who had a great deal of understanding of public relations and marketing, as well as the details and dynamics that go into developing a successful program,” he explained.
RVIA Chairman Gregg Fore also disagrees the process was done in secret or blindly. “The association works relative to the senior staff. The president and chairman make decisions. There is no rule we have to include anyone else,” said Fore. “I don’t believe in that rule because we should include other voices when considering major decisions. That’s why I drafted Bob Olson and Jim Sheldon to conduct the search with me and with Richard Coon.”
Olson was selected because he was co-chairman of the Go RVing Committee, and Sheldon had a background in marketing his entire career at Monaco and served as immediate past president, said Fore.
“Our collective thought that we wanted to make sure the interview process was not tainted by any thoughts that might skew the decision one way or the other,” he added. “Our goal was always to improve the position. You can’t improve on what the previous person has done, so you look for new ways to expand the job.
“My choice not to include anyone other than Jim and Bob was my decision to make,” said Fore. “Others may have had experience and a lot to add to the process, but I didn’t want to be tainted by that. I wanted to be sure we were going in a new and clear direction, not just replacing a person in a particular job.”
Gilanelli said that’s a silly proposition. “Is it tainting to have qualified people on the committee? Just because someone is the co-chairman of Go RVing doesn’t mean he knows anything about advertising and public relations,” said Gilanelli. “He might know how to drive the bus, but certainly not how to fix it. Richard Coon and Greg Fore seem to know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing.”
Part 1 focused on the reasons behind the decision to terminate the 21-year contract with Barton-Gilanelli. That article can be found by clicking here. Part 3 will focus on the role public relations plays in selling RVs and protecting RV dealers from negative publicity.