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Old 24th December 2014, 18:33   #1
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Default Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Each one of you enthusiasts reads car reviews online, in magazines & watches car shows on the tube. Most of us have been doing so since our teens! Yet, how many petrolheads really know how press drives are conducted? What happens behind the scenes? Team-BHP is going to show you just that.

Whenever any new car is launched, Team-BHP has broadly 3 options to review it:

1) A manufacturer-hosted test drive event: These are typically large-scale test drives where ~100 journalists are hosted by the car manufacturer. Duration is normally 1 night / 2 days. The most frequented locations are from Rajasthan & Goa, although we've been to drives in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Himachal, Jammu etc. Tamil Nadu might be the 'Detroit of India', yet driving events there are few & far between. If you want to review a car before it's launched, this is the only way to do so.

2) New car given to us in our home city: This is the most preferred option as we get to spend the maximum amount of time with the car...in a surrounding we're familiar with. The time that the car is with us varies between 2 - 5 days. Availability is only after launch though. As most media offices are based out of Mumbai & Delhi, media cars are generally available in these two cities only (notice the Bangalore Mods nodding in unison).

3) New car belonging to BHPians: Because of our unbiased & neutral reviewing style, we sometimes don't get access to press cars. No problem . From time to time, we've borrowed BHPian's cars for reviews. It's our responsibility to objectively evaluate every relevant car out there, and we will, thanks to the support of our community members.

While there's no real process to options 2 & 3 listed above, press drive events are held in the same, standard format. So, how do they work?

Before The Drive

Invitations to these driving events are always via email. These are sent by the brand's PR agency (rarely are they from the car manufacturer directly). Perfect Relations, Ad Factors, Edelman, Hanmer MS&L, Genesis & Avian Media have a majority of the automotive accounts. The invitation email mentions the dates & location, asking for your confirmation so they can proceed with logistical arrangements (e.g. flight tickets).
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If you're a big website or publication, you can take media drive invitations for granted. On the other hand, if you have a small readership, you won't be on the radar of all manufacturers. That's why you'll see small websites publishing car reviews of only a handful of brands, missing out on several important launches. Trivia: I've seen PR folk using Alexa to decide whether to call a website or not .

Manufacturers host several batches of media coming in, for driving events spread over multiple days (e.g. 5 batches of 2 days each). The batches are usually split into magazines & TV, websites & major newspapers, smaller / regional / vernacular publications and dealers.

Travel & accommodation expenses are borne by the car manufacturer. These include air tickets, hotel stay for a night and meals. Additionally, some manufacturers offer airport pickup & drop-off.

For 3 out of 4 drives, a photographer is allowed to accompany the reviewer. This greatly improves the review quality. The work is split up and there's an additional pair of eyes to make observations on the new car.
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2 out of 10 drives have an embargo in place. That is, you can't publish the review before a date decided by the manufacturer. This rule is usually in place to time the review with the car's launch, or to ensure that those reviewers who flew in at a later date don't suffer a time disadvantage.
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In case you're wondering, yes, reviewers fly economy class for Indian car events.

Last edited by GTO : 24th December 2014 at 18:38.
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Old 24th December 2014, 18:33   #2
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The Event

• Nearly all media test drives are 2-day events, with the actual driving part on the 2nd day. Of course, a small number of events let you drive the car on the 1st day itself. This is the case when the hotel is located at a hill station without a local airport (e.g. drive from Delhi to Shimla or Mumbai to Mahabaleshwar). You drive from the main city to the hill station.
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• The biggest challenge at a press drive event is T-I-M-E. You have to use yours with incredible efficiency!! There isn't a moment free, and one tries to squeeze out every extra minute he can get with the car. Press drives are the only time when my phone goes unanswered, and messages unreplied. You simply don't have the bandwidth for the same. Sleep & rest are a luxury.
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• Nearly all manufacturers outsource the logistics & operations to a PR agency. About 40% of these events are held exceptionally well, a third are average, while the rest are poor. By poor, I mean an absolute lack of timing discipline (delays everywhere), shoddy support, clueless folk running around in circles etc. You meet the PR personnel right from the time you land at the airport, where they are waiting to take you to the hotel. A few manufacturers demonstrate their attention-to-detail by ensuring that the airport transportation is in their make of car only. Others don't care.

• On day 1, if we get to the hotel in the morning or early afternoon, we spend the available hours shooting and making observations on the car. Again, day 1 usually doesn't include any driving component. If you get your hands on the car, you can't take it out of the hotel premises. Many manufacturers understand that we need a lot of time with the car and organise their events accordingly. Some unfortunately don't; after spending 2 days at their events, we've gotten barely 4 - 6 hours with the actual product. I hate these kind of trips. Prefer to do things at my own pace, and don't like being hurried up on something as important as a car review.

• We're put up in standard rooms at a 5-star hotel. Suites & economy-grade hotels are more the exception than the rule. Except for a handful of hours of sleep, we never see the room.

• One of the best parts of test drive events is on the evening of Day 1. Senior management from the marketing & engineering departments make detailed presentations on their new car. This includes technical data, competitive positioning, USPs and more. The presentations start at 1900 hours and last for anywhere between 75 - 120 minutes.
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The slideshow is broken up into 3 parts, each presented by a different member. These briefings can be informative and if you listen closely, you'll pick up some fabulous cues & titbits for your review.

1) Head honcho / Marketing head: Welcome note, talks about the company, importance of new car, achievements...

2) Design: Design head talks about inspiration, family lines, 'natural curves' & dynamic language. You'll be lucky if you get even 1 objectively informative piece of information from this segment of the talk.

3) Technical: Consists of data on the car's construction, mechanicals, engines, how the technology has improved, changes made to the car (vis a vis the previous gen), new transmissions etc. Some graphs are shown where the new car is benchmarked against "unnamed competitors" (easy to guess). This is to be taken with a major pinch of salt, as the testing & graphing results are prepared by them (not a neutral 3rd party).

• If the car was designed at an international R&D center, the foreign engineers who've actually developed it (think chief engineer) are part of the presentation.

• An open Q&A session follows the presentation. Few journalists ask good questions, answers to which you learn from. Others ask stupid stuff for the sake of making their presence known.

• There is then a dinner session organised in the conference room itself, or out on the lawns / poolside. This is where you have easy access to senior management for any queries at all. While the business managers are formal in their demeanour, the technical guys are informal. They really open up once you tell them you're from Team-BHP. You can gain superb insights on the car & even the auto industry overall from these dinner conversations.

Last edited by GTO : 25th December 2014 at 16:50.
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Old 24th December 2014, 18:33   #3
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The Cars

• There are anywhere between 10 - 20 test drive cars at each event. 1 or 2 are kept as a backup, in case a journalist crashes one of the main rides.

• All media cars are numbered, just for the reference & organization of the PR company. They wear a sticker on the front & rear windscreens. Cars are called out by these numbers ("car no.4 is allocated to you") and not the one on their registration plates.

• Cars are available in 2 - 3 colours. If you have a colour preference, you can submit a request to the PR / communications guys and they usually allot the desired colour to you.

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• If the car is going to be launched with a petrol & diesel engine, the manufacturer would make both of them available at the drive. You can split your driving time between the two (changeover is typically at the lunch break). If an Automatic transmission is on the options list, you'll be lucky to get your hands on it. Even if you do, driving 3 different engines / transmissions on a single day is pushing the schedule.
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• The press drive cars are top variants. This makes them look better in reviews. Base / mid variants are rarely brought to these events.

The Drive

• Day 2 starts early with a flag-off between 0700 - 0900 hours. A handful of us get to the (parked) cars at sunrise to shoot. Quick shower, breakfast and you're good to hit the road.

• Sometimes, the drive begins with a safety briefing. Higher chance of this happening if there has been an 'incident' in the preceding days. Driving safely is stressed upon. Remember this (Ford EcoSport Toppled by Reviewer - Emergency Assist Dhamaka)? Most media cars have basic 3rd party insurance. Who bears the cost of damage? The manufacturer, although I've heard of a case or two where the repair bill was sent to the journalist. One manufacturer made it mandatory to have their driver accompany reviewers after their high performance Rs. 1 crore car was smashed sideways into the wall by a magazine.

• The route is predetermined and explained (ironically) via powerpoint. The longest 10 minutes of my life! Would you remember the route within an unfamiliar town from 30 slides & pictures? I never do. Guess manufacturers have to warm up to the idea of Google Maps. A printed multi-page route map with pictures of every major junction / turn is kept in the test drive car. Most brands employ (poor) souls who stand by at each junction, holding an arrow pointing toward the road you have to take. I always wonder, if there was an award for the 'worst job in the world', these dudes holding the big placards under the hot sun would get it.

• One aspect where the PR company could really give the car a boost is by choosing an appropriate road for it. Example - a twisty road for a tight handler, or rough roads for a model with excellent ride quality. Regrettably, PR companies know little of the car or its strengths. The car comes last, typically after transportation logistics, hotel options, scenery and uniqueness of location. That said, one manufacturer chose this highway after seeing my post on the same.

• We've been to press drives which had merely 100 kms of driving, and we've been to those with over 500 kms. Needless to say, the longer the drive, the better chance for us to evaluate the car properly. Further, I like the approach of a few manufacturers who basically give you the car in the morning, let you take it anywhere you want, with a return by late evening. No wastage on the clock, only car time!

• In terms of duration, you get anywhere between 4 - 10 hours of driving time with the car. Can stretch this to 16 - 18 hours if both days have you behind the wheel. I reiterate, from the reviewer's point of view, the longer the better. Here's hoping that all manufacturers 'get it'.
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• On some drives, we have the car to ourselves. On most drives, we're sharing it with one other publication. We take turns at driving; to ensure an equal split, I suggest a driver change every hour. When the other person is driving, you grab the opportunity to review the back seat etc.

• Who your co-driver is depends on your luck. While most people drive alright, a small % drive like maniacs. If you get uneasy, just request and the person will drive safer. Of course, you can't do anything about those who are inherently bad drivers, even when they aren't speeding. Ask the PR personnel to pair you up with someone you're comfortable with, and they'll comply.

• There's no real convoy maintained. Even if the route is fixed, everyone drives at their own pace. If you see a good spot for exterior shots, simply park & shoot.
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• Nowadays, every media car gets its own 'pilot' car. The pilot car is an Innova on 9/10 drives. The openable hatch allows tracking shots, which is what most publications want. Take a look at TSK1979's awesome capture from an Innova's boot.

In a Micra's boot.
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• The pilot vehicle is also helpful for navigating through the unfamiliar roads of the host city. These taxi drivers are locals who know the area like the back of their hand. Use them as your navigators & also to find scenic photoshoot locations. As an example, we were guided to this beautiful spot by our pilot. No way we would have found it ourselves (t'was in the middle of nowhere).

• A couple of manufacturers are smart enough to have a technical dude accompany you on the drive. His presence brings immense value to the review process, as questions find immediate answers. Odds are, it's an engineer who has been involved with the car's development. Additionally, he will point out finer details that would otherwise be easy to miss (e.g. brick type intercooler, small aerodynamic flaps on the wheel arches, hidden feature in the MID). Unfortunately, this trend is slowly fading away and I haven't seen it in the recent past.

• Midway through the drive is a brunch / lunch rendezvous. You either come back to the hotel for lunch, or its organised at a restaurant enroute. This is where you exchange cars (i.e. switch from petrol to diesel) and ask questions to company reps & engineers.
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• As mentioned earlier, the real challenge is time. This is especially the case for comprehensive Team-BHP Official Reviews, where we cover every detail of the car (have seen some other reviewers being done well before the time allotted!). There's not a moment free and, if you're not physically fit, it can get very exhausting. Once, I bought tickets for a later flight (at my own cost) so that I'd get a couple of extra hours with the review car.

• Further to the point above, even after all the planning & efficiency, it could happen that you didn't get sufficient time with the car. What then? We ask the manufacturer to make the car available in Mumbai. This can push back the review's release date, but we're clear that Team-BHP won't publish an incomplete report. No halfbaked reports for BHPians.

• Quality takes time & Team-BHP Official Reviews are normally the last to go live. Honestly, we couldn't care less. Team-BHP prefers to focus on 'quality' over 'deadline', and there's no way we can publish a review within 24 - 48 hours of driving a car (as most others do). It's impossible. We follow a fanatically structured, well-researched approach...which I trust shows in all of our official reports. A Team-BHP Official Review serves BHPians & Guests for all of the 5 - 10 years that the car is on sale. We don't understand the difference that an extra week or two makes for a benchmark review.
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Last edited by GTO : 25th December 2014 at 16:40.
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Old 24th December 2014, 18:34   #4
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The Smaller yet Significant Things

On an average, 5 team members contribute to each Team-BHP Official Review.

Because of the unique nature of Team-BHP, manufacturers are often confused . We get a lot of questions about Team-BHP on media events. Why we don't accept advertising for new car models, how Team-BHP is a Forum (NOT a blog), that Team-BHP Moderators have other full-time professional / entrepreneurial interests, why we don't see any value in launching a Team-BHP magazine...the list goes on.

Manufacturers frequently offer long-termers to us...say, a new car to drive for a year or so. We politely refuse; don't need them because we have real-world ownership reports from BHPians.

Inexpensive caps, t-shirts, scale models, bags etc. are still okay, but high-priced gifts make us uncomfortable (politely refused an iPad once and a laptop another time). IMHO, sufficient time with the car is all that we want. Manufacturers should do away with gifts.
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An FAQ: Nope, we don't screw on actual Team-BHP number plates on test drive cars. They are photoshopped later on.

If you're driving a highly anticipated vehicle, onlookers & passersby show a lot of interest. You can never stop without someone wanting to check out the car (and we always let them) or asking questions. The biggest crowd magnets have been SUVs like the XUV500 & Fortuner. Here's a group that the Ninja attracted over an impromptu shoot of its meter console.
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For massive international media drives (e.g. S-Class, Range Rover), manufacturers have the event running over several weeks, with journalists flying in from all over the world. For one of the drives, they had shipped 37 test-drive cars from one country to another!

Further to the earlier point on embargos, a few companies have an embargo in place only for text & opinions (NOT for pictures). In fact, they encourage you to post pictures on your social media channels. Reason = The car gets the "buzz" from social media, but at the same time, they are being fair to the media guys who came in for the final batches (ensuring their reviews are released at the same time as the guys of the initial rounds).

I don't like wasting a lot of time searching for that 'ideal' photoshoot location. If it's close by, fine. If not, I'll find something half decent and focus on the car instead. To me, the car is more important than the backdrop.

Walkie talkies are provided occasionally. Useful for communication between the reviewer <-> organiser.

TV guys are the most pressed for time. They have to start recording within a few minutes of getting into the car. A challenge because that's not enough time to have a conclusive evaluation! This is all the more obvious at special events (e.g. track days where the TV guy is talking even before pulling out of the pitlane).

For the high-end CBUs, it's not uncommon for the press car to come loaded with OPTIONAL extras. These features rarely make it to the model once local assembly starts in India.

Manufacturers work around each other's test drive dates. I don't remember the last time that 2 test drives were held on the same day.

Out of courtesy to other publications, we slap on a Team-BHP sticker only when we have the car to ourselves.
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Be in no doubt, for a car enthusiast, it's an incredible feeling to be the first to get your hands on a fresh new model, and evaluate it for lakhs of readers. We love it. At the same time, we're well aware of the responsibility that rests on our shoulders as Team-BHP Reviewers.

On a lighter note

Last edited by GTO : 26th December 2014 at 11:15.
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Old 24th December 2014, 18:40   #5
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Thread moved from the Assembly Line (The "Assembly Line" Forum section) to the Indian Car Scene. Merry Christmas!
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:04   #6
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Rush, thanks for the insightful thread. Here I am, keyboard warrior often thinking it's all fun and games at someone else's expense for the moderators

Kidding aside, the amount of effort you guys put into each Official Team-BHP review is clearly visible in each published report. I'm proud to claim I DO NOT read any automotive magazines and rely solely on Team-BHP for my dose of automotive information. There's hardly any publication (across media types) that is as thorough and as unbiased in evaluating a product.

P.S. The 'automobile enthusiast' collage at the end of your note is closer to reality than you may believe
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:08   #7
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Great thread GTO, lot of insight into official test drive events and tbhp approach to it. Great also to see that team-bhp uses a bigger set of expert reviewers than most magazines/newspapers do :-)
Brings out different flavours - always special to read the tbhp reviews on the forum.
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:09   #8
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

It was great reading the behind-scenes scenario of a test drive event. This makes Team Bhp different! I could not imagine any source from where enthusiasts could get this type of information . By the way, I always thought the T-Bhp number plates were actually screwed.
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:13   #9
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Wow! I never knew so much goes into reviewing a car! A really nice write up for people who don't have a clue about this. Loved that you mentioned even the minute details (eg: How the Team-BHP number plates are photoshopped etc)

I remember how as a kid I always thought that the life of an automobile journalist is the most chilled out However, now I have completely different

Thank you GTO sir for such an interesting article
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:16   #10
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Wow Awesome!!! Sometimes i have wondered why team-bhp review is not yet out. Now i understand. Great effort by team-bhp reviewers to bring out the best/unbiased.

Had a question - is there like a post review conference again - where you get to question them again after the drive - on things you have noticed (like parts falling off etc.) where manufacturers give you reasons.
Also is there a great deal of interaction with other reviewers leading to exchange of opinions, biases ??

Last edited by GTO : 26th December 2014 at 17:03. Reason: Typo
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:18   #11
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Wow!! Just as I was wondering how the Test drives happen, this thread shows up. Thanks for taking us on a virtual test drive. Lot of questions used to come up in mind when reading an official review, and this thread gave answers to each and every one.

Thanks again for putting up an excellent behind the scenes report.
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:20   #12
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Excellent post and very informative Rush. I always wanted to get the entire picture behind these reviews. One question that I always wanted to ask - Do they really allow you guys to paste teambhp stickers onto the cars when you do the review? Asking this because many guys over here find it difficult to paste sticker on to their cars (thanks to dads and wives). Also, I had a tough time removing them when I sold the car and it did leave some marks. I know it's a silly question, but curious enough to know
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:25   #13
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Woah! Thank you Team-BHP for giving us an insight about how things work. That was very exicitng. I haven't come across a forum, blog or a website who work so selflessly. Proud to be a TeamBHPian!
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:29   #14
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Very insightful thread Rush. I was a reviewer myself (I was the co-founder of the blog cubic capacity) and had a chance to meet Rush during the media drive for the Figo. I can totally relate to having a bad driver from another publication because I had one. The dude just did not know how to drive a car properly, let alone evaluate it for it merits and de-merits. Infact so bad was he that after a kilometer or so, I just couldn't take and had to request him to let me take over. He obliged and I was a happy bunny. Ahh memories
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Old 24th December 2014, 19:33   #15
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Default Re: Behind the Scenes: How Press & Media Drives Work

Extremely informative thread, GTO. Very well explained. Humbled to read the polite refusal of expensive gifts from the manufacturers, which surely shows the un-biased approach and quality of the reviews.

A curious question though - how do Mods rotate the review responsibility? Do you guys fight with each other when you get an opportunity to review a high end performance car?
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