WASHINGTON - Dealers are treating their customers so well that they can stand up to scrutiny from the toughest consumer-oriented journalists.

That is the theory behind a joint public relations campaign orchestrated by the National Automobile Dealers Associ-ation and several automakers. NADA has established a nonprofit group called Automotive Retailing Today to execute the campaign.

The organization has 16 members, including 14 automakers, NADA and the American International Automobile Dealers Association.

The first phase of the image campaign will be educational seminars for the press. But neither NADA nor participating automakers will call the shots.

The National Press Foundation in Washington will choose the topics and lead the discussion. The foundation, a nonprofit group that conducts professional development programs for reporters, also will select participants.

'I don't do public relations. I don't care what the end result is,' says Bob Meyers, president of the foundation. 'We organize programs so that journalists can talk to people they normally don't have access to in an environment they normally don't get. They will get on-the-record comments from people with varying opinions.'

Meyers may invite Consumer Reports magazine. He is especially interested in how consumers can buy cars over the Internet. The sessions will have an open question-and-answer format. The subjects and participants have not been determined.


NADA hopes the sessions will improve public confidence in dealerships, though officials admit the forums could backfire if reporters continue their long-held cynical view of dealers. Still, NADA is willing to bet the results will be positive.

'We have to be more proactive about the positive things we have done,' says John Peterson, an NADA director and owner of Peterson Pontiac-GMC Inc. in Bloomington, Minn., who is chairman of Automotive Retailing Today. 'Should we sit back and wait until somebody writes an article we don't like, then write a letter saying we don't like it?'


So far, three press forums are planned beginning this fall in three major cities, most likely Detroit and New York plus either Los Angeles or Dallas.

The campaign includes hiring an independent research firm to conduct a study of customer satisfaction with dealers. Results will be released at the forums. The study is expected to be completed this summer.

Fourteen automakers have pledged a total of about $600,000 for the campaign. NADA has kicked in $100,000, and AIADA will contribute $5,000. The goal is to raise $1.5 million for media forums over a period of three years. After the first three forums, the group will launch a national promotion of service and parts sales at dealerships. The details have not been determined.

NADA has invited dealer and manufacturer trade organizations and 21 automakers to join the effort. Among the participating automakers are American Honda Motor Co. Inc., BMW of North America Inc., Chrysler Corp., General Motors, Hyundai Motor America, Land Rover North America Inc., Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc., Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America Inc., Nissan North America Inc., Porsche Cars North America Inc., Saab Cars USA Inc., Subaru of America Inc., Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and Volvo Cars North America Inc. Automakers contribute $10,000 to $250,000 apiece, based on market share.

'We have always felt that you can't draw a clear, bright line between us and our dealers. Dealers represent Toyota, and the customer makes no distinction between us and the dealers,' says James Olson, senior vice president of external affairs for Toyota. 'This will be an ongoing program involving the top management of the auto companies.'


But not all automakers support the effort. Ford Motor Co. and affiliates Mazda Motor of America Inc. and Jaguar Cars North America are not on board.

'Our focus is on improving customer satisfaction,' says Ford spokesman John Ochs. Ford is more interested in improving the retail experience than in promoting the traditional dealership, he says.

Ramsay Gillman, chairman of the Gillman Cos. in Houston and an NADA director, says, 'As a Lincoln Mercury dealer, I am very disappointed. We need support from the manufacturer. That's what makes the system work.'

But others say that Ford is not typically a joiner.

Sam Pack, NADA's Ford line chairman, who owns two Ford dealerships in Texas, says Ford has its own image campaigns under way.

He believes the joint effort can be effective without the involvement of all the automakers.

The founding directors of Auto-motive Retailing Today are Bud Liebler, vice president of marketing for Chrysler; Toyota's Olson; and NADA's Peterson.