P.T. Barnum would probably feel right at home walking through the North American International Auto Show in Detroit’s Cobo Center this week.
P.T. Barnum would probably feel right at home walking through the
North American International Auto Show in Detroit’s Cobo Center this
That’s because the roughly 53 exhibitors have spent more than dollars
350 million to put together sight and sound spectaculars aimed at
drawing in the public - and the media.
Despite use of the Internet, VNRs, satellite news conferences and other
PR tech tools, auto trade show PR is still the most important tool for
getting media attention about new models and the automakers
While the amount being spent at the Detroit conference, which is open to
the public from January 15 to 23, is staggering, it is far from the only
gathering auto PR people prepare for each year. Los Angeles hosted its
show earlier this month, to be followed by shows in New York and Chicago
as well as key events in Tokyo, Geneva and, depending on the year,
either Frankfurt or Paris.
Why all the fuss?
Auto PR pros spend months preparing for these extravaganzas. But why
lavish all this attention - and money - on trade shows?
Because auto writers flock to them - around 7,000 are expected in
Detroit. Auto PR staffs try to contact as many as possible ahead of time
to gather crowds for their planned press conferences as well as to set
up one-on-one interviews with key executives.
Lavish dinners and special events are de rigueur in getting additional
time with key members of the auto press. One US automaker once spent
dollars 3 million on a press dinner, Detroit pros recall.
Additional millions are spent on the press conferences at the shows.
Unveilings of new models have become show biz events with special
effects galore in an effort to garner more attention from TV and even
the print press.
Steve Harris, now head of PR at General Motors, is credited with
starting the Hollywood-like unveilings in the days when he was trying to
keep then-struggling Chrysler in the public eye. Former Harris staffers
from those days are now scattered throughout the auto PR landscape; they
have picked up on his techniques and have tried to expand on them for
their own brands.
Big chunk of the PR budget
’Certainly a million dollars (for such an event) is not out of the
question,’ says Harris. The auto PR veteran wouldn’t be more specific
about his trade show budget other than to say that ’it represents a big
chunk of our annual spending.’ But if an event garners widespread
coverage ’the payoff can be spectacular,’ he adds. Rather than being
replaced by new technology, show PR is using that technology to broaden
its reach. Those techniques include, for example, web sites tied to
conventions and satellite news feeds beamed to outlets that are unable
to send reporters.
For the foreseeable future, auto show PR will involve creating on-site
media events, as well as the grunt work of contacting thousands of
reporters beforehand to whet their appetites for planned announcements.
It also includes finding ways to stand out in the crowd, like arranging
press dinners or distributing freebies so that reporters can remember
what a given company has planned.
Although outside agencies will occasionally be given specific projects
at shows, more often their people simply become additional bodies the
automakers’ PR departments use to schedules interviews, shepherd
executives around or handle other nitty-gritty tasks. ’It’s everybody
doing anything,’ says Rick Deneau, senior manager of corporate marketing
communications for DaimlerChrysler, who works with Golin/Harris. ’We
look at (agency people) as added minds.’
The Michigan-based convention, whose beginnings go back to 1907 as the
Detroit Auto Show, is seen by many as the major US PR event of the
A decade or so ago, it was overshadowed by larger gatherings. But show
organizers began inviting non-US manufacturers to exhibit - a major
attitude change for xenophobic Detroit - and then secured an
international designation from a worldwide body. That gave the event
added cache among the European media. US automakers also agreed to step
up their involvement.
As a result, today ’the Detroit show is the Super Bowl of auto shows,’
says John Undeland, a senior counselor with Washington, DC-based
Strat@comm, which in 1998 handled a show PR project for GM. Undeland
adds that exhibitors there know ’the eyes of the world and the eyes of
the media are upon them.’
Indeed, this year in Detroit, GM put all its brands together for the
first time in a super-exhibit measuring 94,000 square feet, a move that
topped a similar display by Ford last year. Limited by the hall’s floor
space, GM and others are building up, adding second stories to their
DaimlerChrysler has positioned a cafe on the second floor of its
exhibit, using the space for media interviews with key executives. Its
PR pros likely will have contacted more than 1,000 reporters prior to
The exhibits include cars displayed in every possible way, including
attached to the sides of walls, with usually a featured model or two on
a rotating circular stand. They also have stages complete with overhead
lighting, laser shows and sometimes even fireworks. New models can be
lowered from ceiling riggings or driven right into the building during
press previews. While at Chrysler, Steve Harris once had the head of the
company drive its new Grand Cherokee through a plate glass wall.
The Detroit conference, like most of the major shows, schedules press
briefings the week before it opens to the public. Automakers, eager for
attention, have stretched what had been three days of previews into
four, holding special events the Sunday before the first press briefing.
’There is a lot of jockeying going on,’ notes Deneau. The show schedules
press briefings based on how large an exhibit a manufacturer had the
previous year and on whether a press conference will be used to unveil a
’Everybody wants 10 o’clock Monday morning,’ says Joe Rohatynski, a VP
at Detroit-based Franco Public Relations, which handles the show’s
Indeed, some automakers would rather have morning times on the second or
third day than an afternoon slot for fear that reporter interest will be
waning by then or that a late afternoon slot will be too late for
regular video news feeds from the site.
’We’re never going to be featured the first morning of a show,’ says
Geno Effler, manager of PR with Kia Motors America. Effler lobbies to
get his press events scheduled for the second morning of press days, but
failing that, ’I’d rather be on the morning of day three than later on
Large manufacturers routinely unveil new models a year before their
expected sales debut. ’We’re starting to build some recognition, then
we’re challenged to keep it going,’ says Joe Tetherow, national product
news and corporate communications manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA. He
did just that when Toyota introduced its Tundra pickup truck by taking
it to smaller venues, like the Indiana State Fair, to keep it in the
Another way to capture attention is with the big show spectacular. But
Harris and others agree that simply putting on a major production
doesn’t work unless it ties into the product being shown. The LA
convention, for example, naturally lends itself to celebrity themes,
says Tom Mattia, vice president of public affairs for Lincoln Mercury.
That’s why he had St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire drive out a
new Lincoln Blackwood luxury pickup truck at the LA show last year. ’I
got my AP photo and I got my TV coverage,’ Mattia recalls. ’It got huge
Jason Vines, vice president of corporate communications with Nissan
North America, last year displayed a huge backpack at the Detroit show
when he unveiled the new Xterra, a sports vehicle being marketed to a
young, ’outdoorsy’ market. ’We had more ink than you can shake a stick
at,’ he boasts.
Charlotte Craig, one of four auto writers who cover conferences for the
Detroit Free Press, says: ’For us, it’s news value rather than show
value, although I have to say the show value does have some impact.
Chrysler (during Harris’ tenure) built such a name for itself for having
wacko spectacular unveilings that you just didn’t want to miss what they
But even Chrysler PR alums like Vines know such spectacles have to make
sense or they can end up alienating reporters instead of intriguing
He recalls once being involved in a conference event that featured
Leonardo DaVinci moderating a quiz show. It bombed. ’I wanted to kill
myself at the end,’ Vines jokes. ’I’ve been in therapy for it.’
These pros see no end to the dominance of conventions in auto PR. Says
Kia’s Effler: ’The media, like consumers, enjoy touching, feeling,
seeing cars. Auto shows touch more of our senses than any other way you
can with a car.’ As long as that remains true, auto shows will remain
the big guns in the auto PR arsenal.