From Detroit To New York And Back, What’s The Real Story?

Sometimes, in Big Corporate PR, there’s the official story and then there’s the real story. Never was that more evident in front of our very eyes then when my colleagues and I were working media relations for an event that was promoting the automotive future on the very September 2014 day that Cadillac announced it was moving to New York City.

A senior GM executive was a keynote speaker that day. To his and the company’s credit, he stood up afterward and took every question from curious journalists about the announcement. According to reports from that day, he told reporters that the move will “elevate” the brand and “better understand customers on the coasts.” Apparently, neither happened.

Today, GM announced that it’s moving the brand back closer to the rest of the company in suburban Detroit and the engineers who are developing the cars of the future. The strategy apparently failed, if it was, in fact, the strategy at all.

Sitting among journalists for that entire day, they all received the same story from their sources inside the company. This had everything to do with a brand chief who wanted out of Detroit to live in New York. Nobody would go on the record, but everybody unofficially sang the same tune.

A reporter asked me what I thought. I told him the story of a long ago client that acquired a much-larger operation in Chicago but kept its Midwest headquarters in Detroit because the senior executive lived on a lake in Oakland County and felt like he couldn’t live similarly in the Chicago suburbs. In that case, it kept a lot of people in their current jobs, so it was not controversial, at least not in Detroit. But yes, I confirmed, this stuff happens.

I thought of this earlier this year when walking from a hotel to our client’s office in Soho for meetings. I walked right past Cadillac’s office. It didn’t look like a headquarters. It looked like a retail outlet – one among many in that part of New York. I also noticed I didn’t see many Caddys on the streets. It’s tough to tell by feel, but at that moment, it sure didn’t feel like Cadillac had attracted much “elevation” just by being in a “cool” New York City neighborhood.

Sometimes, big companies and their PR operations have no choice but to go with the official story. It’s the only set of messages available to them because, on some level, it’s what leadership believes or at least has rationalized. But it had better work. Otherwise, certain audiences, particularly influential industry media, default to the real story they heard from behind the scenes.