Compelling narratives drive buzz at auto and tech shows

PRWeek editor-in-chief Steve Barrett reflects on the common trends fueling the automotive sector's feel-good presence at CES and the Detroit auto show.

Confidence was high in Detroit this week as the auto sector met for its annual get-together at the North American International Auto Show.

The industry was coming off the best sales year in almost a decade and one senior comms exec at a large automaker commented that if companies couldn’t make money in this environment then they probably never will.

Trucks and sports cars stole the show, with Ford’s F-150 aluminum pickup winning truck of the year for the second time in a row, and the Dearborn manufacturer’s sensational GT carbon fiber sports car also wowing the press corps.

alternate textAlvaro Cabal, multicultural communications manager at Ford Motor Company, poses with the Ford F-150 -- the 2015 Truck of the Year.

alternate textFord's GT carbon fiber sports car

Ford adopted a slightly different comms strategy this year. It still hired out the large Joe Louis Arena adjoining the main Cobo exhibition hall for its reveal, but it tried to surprise the audience and bring back some of the magic. Head of comms Ray Day explained that his team felt the trend toward briefing the press in advance of the show had lessened the wow factor of the vehicle reveals, so they tried as much as possible to keep their offer under wraps until show time on Monday morning.

Ford also took a larger space on the main exhibition floor this year and presented a slew of content streams ranging from a town hall with new CEO Mark Fields and a group of university students, panels with third-party individuals such as Snapchat COO Emily White, live on-the-hour news and trend updates, and an on-stand press release delivery service via drones.

Like many at the show, Fields had hotfooted to Detroit from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which some said is beginning to resemble an auto show rather than a tech event. Indeed, at the reveal on Monday, Fields referred to Ford as a tech and mobility company just as much as a car and truck company. Robots, 3D printing, and virtual reality demo experiences were also ubiquitous elements of the show stands that could just as easily have been seen in Vegas.

Autonomous driving was a theme of both shows, and auto tech and sensor supplier Delphi had a welcome respite from its ongoing troubles with the GM switch recall as it gained good coverage at CES for its automated-driving experience, taking journalists such as Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff for a spin around the streets of Vegas in a customized Audi. At the same time, another was taking a longer trip from San Francisco to Vegas.

The story then got picked up by ABC and was featured on Good Morning America. Delphi’s sensors are already being used in automobiles that are on the road for functions such as lane management, but the steps toward genuine self-driving and autonomous vehicles are becoming closer to reality, though there are clearly still lots of practical, regulatory, and technological issues to overcome.

The narrative around cars has long since crossed the Rubicon from being a niche activity for petrol heads. Technology and wow factors are now table stakes for the automotive manufacturers looking to attract mainstream consumers and rapidly growing new market demographics such as the Hispanic audience.

This democratization of the messaging was well-illustrated by Nissan’s brave decision to put CEO Carlos Ghosn up for a Reddit Ask Me Anything session during the Detroit show. Ghosn likes to speak directly to consumers and there are fewer better, or more intimidating, places to engage with a large number of people at the same time as a Reddit AMA.

The hour-long session attracted 4,000 questions, only a fraction of which could be answered live. There were some unfair accusations that the Nissan PR team had planted softball questions into the mix, which would be a pretty stupid thing to do. If you’re going to engage with Reddit you have to embrace the process warts and all, and opening yourself up to the possibility of being accused of gaming the system would not be a wise move.

On balance, and according to Reddit after it carried out an internal investigation, the likelihood is that the supposedly suspicious newly created accounts on Reddit were the result of people engaging with the platform for the first time having been alerted to the AMA via social media, rather than worker drones at Nissan PR HQ trying to help their boss out.

A Reddit AMA may not be for every CEO, but on balance it appears Ghosn got away with this one. One thing’s for sure, for the communications teams planning their strategies as the road show moves on from Vegas and Detroit to Chicago and Geneva, via South By Southwest, there is no let-up in the opportunities to tell stories to audiences hungry for their content.

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