ComPRehension

Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
October 27, 2008

General Session Recap: Bob Lutz on Making a Connection


For GM executive Bob Lutz, Detroit is the perfect setting for a conference of PR professionals.

“Detroit and the U.S. domestic automobile industry need to change a lot of perceptions — often misguided and wrong perceptions — that the rest of the country has about us if we’re going to turns things around,” Lutz, vice chairman of global product development for GM, said yesterday morning during the General Session at the PRSA 2008 International Conference.

And given the recessive global economy, Lutz acknowledged that it’s even more challenging to get your message across and make yourself heard.

Lutz, a veteran of more than 40 years in the automobile industry and chief blogger for GM’s Fastlane blog, shared his thoughts on the art of communications with the 3,000 students and professionals in attendance. His five key points echoed the theme of this year’s Conference — the Point of Connection.

  1. Communications is about making a connection.

That connection — message sent and received — is the essence of communications. “Your message must be received, heard and understood,” he said. “Otherwise, no connection is made.”

Lutz compared making a connection to the concept of automobile design. “An automobile’s design must make an immediate, emotional connection to a potential buyer,” he said. “If there is no connection — if that automobile visually doesn’t fascinate — then the potential customer has no desire to learn more about it…there will be no sale.”

So how do you make a message connect? He discussed that in his second point.

    2.  Communications must say something.

Lutz said that he dislikes canned, sanitized corporate messaging that doesn’t say anything.

“All large corporations are good at it. General Motors is no exception. Instead of being a weapon for putting out the truth, [a press release] becomes a method of risk avoidance,” he said. “It focuses on making sure no one says the wrong thing. By focusing on not saying the wrong thing, you’re essentially saying nothing.”

What’s a better approach? Good, effective communications messaging is expressed skillfully, directly, accurately, precisely and honestly, he said.

“I don’t think any serious company lies in its communications,” Lutz said. “But you can create the wrong impression by only imparting half the truth. Of course, that is the art of propaganda. It is not honest.”

     3.  Communications has value that paid advertising does not.

Lutz made it clear that he’s not down on marketing or advertising. Still, nothing compares to public relations in his estimation.

“Public relations offers us the chance to put our messages out there…and have others spread the message for us usually at the best possible price, which is called ‘free,’ ” Lutz said. “This can often have a multiplier effect as the message repeats, grows and travels from source to source.”

However, the tone of the message is key. “We have to keep ridiculous hyperbole and blatant self-praise out of communications. Hyperbole and self-praise can really do a lot of damage — even when it is accurate.”

     4.  Communications should view the media as an opportunity and not an obstacle.

Building relations with key media members is important, Lutz said.

“I believe that listening carefully, avoiding being condescending and just being straight with [the media] is the right formula,” he said. “Journalists like subjects who have a human touch, have a sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously.

“That’s how I would tell you to approach journalists; how to counsel your executives to approach them.”

He put himself in the shoes of a reporter.

“If I were a journalist, I would really hate the pompous, self-congratulatory big shot stuffed shirts who they often have to interview, especially when all they can get from the interview is little tidbits of the predigested corporate line doled out with heaping side helpings of corporate arrogance.”

   5.  Communicators must evolve with the communications environment.

It’s very simple, he said: “To be effective, we all have to adopt and try new things.”

As proof of his adoption of the new media environment, he mentioned GM’s Fastlane blog and discussed the rewards of corporate blogging.

“It’s an opportunity to have a real dialogue with our customers and potential customers and an opportunity to put our message out there that’s totally unfiltered,” Lutz said. “It’s also immediate. I don’t have to tell you how important that timing of getting your message out there is. If it’s too late, it’s too late. And you’re sunk.”

John Elsasser, editor-in-chief, PR Tactics (PRSA’s award-winning monthly newspaper).  The publication provides PR professionals with practical how-to information that will help improve their job performance and advance their careers.  The Strategist, PRSA’s quarterly print publication, examines changing concepts and occasionally challenges current wisdom about the practice of public relations.

For coverage on the PRSA 2008 International Conference: The Point of Connection, visit www.prsa.org/conf2008.

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