Brands at Detroit auto show to highlight how industry is moving past crises

The North American International Auto Show kicks off this week, and automakers showing off their latest models should expect tough questions from journalists in the light of scandals at GM and Volkswagen.

The 2016 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid. (Image via the North American International Auto Show press site).
The 2016 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid. (Image via the North American International Auto Show press site).

DETROIT: There’s a cloud hanging over the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. In the wake of crises at General Motors and Volkswagen, automakers at the show will have to be prepared for tough questions from skeptical journalists, say crisis communications experts.

GM has been dealing with the ignition switch recall primarily related to its Chevrolet Cobalt model that has been linked to more than 100 deaths since 2014. Volkswagen, meanwhile, has been bogged down with its own emissions-cheating scandal since September.

"I think it is never going to be business as usual [at the auto show] when there is a backdrop of controversy," said Eric Dezenhall, CEO and co-founder of Dezenhall Resources, on what to expect at the show, which began on Monday. "There is no way journalists will go to the auto show and not ask difficult questions. But that does not mean this is the demise of the industry; it just means there will be uncomfortable moments where there will have to be answers."  

Gene Grabowski, a partner at Washington, DC-based kglobal, concurred that there will be reporters asking hard-hitting questions about Volkswagen and GM, and automakers will need to have responses ready. However, he advised that automakers should keep any references to recent scandals succinct and quickly move on to how the industry is expecting a "rosier future."

"The specter of problems in the industry, specifically Volkswagen, will be present at the show, but I think you are going to find comms pros in the auto industry are going to be very well prepared to move from those issues and questions into talking about the positive developments in the auto industry and a bright future," said Grabowski, who disclosed that GM is a kglobal client.

He expected automakers at the show to emphasize their focus on new technology.

"One thing automakers are doing to compete– in addition to auto mileage and hybrids and electric cars – is interior technology such as sound systems, guidance systems, and things that make cars easier to drive," he explained. "There will also be a lot of emphasis on the driverless car. So you will see a whole lot of attempts to move beyond the Volkswagen issue and any other issues automakers had onto these kinds of things."

In particular, GM’s $500 million partnership with Lyft to develop self-driving cars, announced last week, will draw a lot of buzz, Grabowski added.

Automakers such as GM will also emphasize their commitment to develop alternative energy cars, he said. This development dates back to 2009, when GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and the federal government gave them $64 billion, with the condition they develop hybrid and electric cars.

Auto industry outlook
By the numbers, a rosier future for the auto industry isn’t just a talking point. Sales of new cars and trucks in 2015 hit a record high of 17.47 million, with even higher sales expected in 2016.

Grabowski said consumers are on the road even more because of lower gas prices and interest rates. In addition, wealthier consumers are trading in cars faster than ever before, he said.

"The reason for that is the increasing popularity of leasing and technology changes so fast," he said. "A business exec doesn’t want to hang on to their car for 10 years anymore because the tech is obsolete in three years; they want to keep trading or leasing up so they can keep pace with the tech."  

In the end, time is what will save the tarnished reputation of automakers such as Volkswagen and GM, Dezenhall said.

"Certainly companies under fire need to answer some questions and demonstrate what they are doing to solve problems," he said. "Ultimately, problems are solved by fixing the problem, resolving lawsuits, introducing new products, and getting rid of bad actors."  

Key North American International Auto Show dates:
Press Preview: January 11-12
Industry Preview: January 13-14
Charity Preview: January 15
Public Show: January 16-24

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