Market Focus Auto PR: Putting on a show with auto PR - The automobile industry gathers for its Detroit convention this week. And, as John Frank reports, trade shows are still the most important tool for auto PR

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 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 show.

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

new model.

’Everybody wants 10 o’clock Monday morning,’ says Joe Rohatynski, a VP

at Detroit-based Franco Public Relations, which handles the show’s


Early birds

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

day two.’

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

public eye.

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

were doing.’

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.

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