Michael Kaltenmark ’02 was desperate.
The year was 2008, and Butler’s Director of External Relations (and handler of the University’s live mascot) had a side hustle handling public relations and marketing for Vision Racing. The trouble was, Vision Racing lacked the big stars and success stories that other teams had. No one was paying attention.
Kaltenmark needed to change that. So he turned to social media—and wound up rewriting the norms of auto-racing public relations.
“At Butler, social media was working well for Butler Blue II,” he said. “People were receptive to it, we had great dialogue and we produced great content that generated a lot of interaction. I thought if it works for the dog, it might work for the race team.”
His initial attempt was basic: When the team added a sponsor, he took a picture and asked team owner Tony George if he could tweet the photo. George gave his OK. So did the fans on Twitter.
“At that point, for me, it was like ‘ah-ha,'” Kaltenmark said. “This is a great way to interact with people.”
Soon, Vision Racing was live-tweeting races and practices and giving fans as much information as possible.
“We went from being the laughingstock of the IndyCar series to being a beloved underdog,” Kaltenmark said. “It changed the fans’ perspective about our team. They got content they couldn’t get elsewhere. They got to understand our brand and our voice and meet our people digitally. That resonated with them. That was something they didn’t have anywhere else in motorsports.”
Mike Kitchel, Communications Director at IndyCar, said Vision Racing’s social media strategy “was miles ahead of the curve in the IndyCar Series at the time,” and he credited Kaltenmark and colleague Pat Caporali with “leading the charge with a passion and work ethic that was truly unparalleled.”
“Looking back, what amazes me most, was how quickly the rest of the teams in the IndyCar Series went from being completely skeptical of what they were doing to desperately trying to catch up,” Kitchel said. “They were ahead of their time.… To this day, IndyCar stands out as one of the most socially active and engaging leagues in all of professional sports and I believe—without question—that has a lot to do with what Vision Racing started over a decade ago.”
Their social media efforts had another consequence: the fans’ interest forced tradition media—TV, radio, print—to pay attention and cover the team.
“We learned to leverage earned media,” he said. “We’ve been working that recipe to death with the dog here at Butler, putting out our own content and having the big media outlets pick it up and want to do a story.”
This May, Kaltenmark is doing social media with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway marketing team, and what he started in 2008 is as common as the rev of an engine in May. But back then, he said, “My colleagues in PR used to make fun of me for always tweeting. Now you walk around the paddock and it’s all they do.”
He credits his Butler education and work experience with his approach to problem-solving.
“You can call it a liberal-arts background, or you can call it good preparation, but I was able to lean on that,” he said, pointing to his abilities to write and think critically and his knowledge of journalism and public relations. “I felt confident in what I was doing because of the experiences I had in and out of the classroom at Butler.”