On Jan. 12 and 13 more than five-thousand members of the international media will crowd into Detroit’s rejuvenated Cobo Hall for the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). It’s much easier to say “Detroit Auto Show,” and some take that convenient shortcut.
They come for several reasons. One, they think they’ll get free stuff from the automakers after a new vehicle is unveiled. Doesn’t matter what it is. It’s free and they want it. Some grab a few of whatever it is and sell it on eBay to someone who is willing to pay for something that someone got for free.
The main reason they come, however, is to see how many people’s names they remember whom they haven’t seen since the last auto show. The game of “media credential eye dip” is always fun, especially when you catch someone who forgot your name dipping his/her eyes down to your badge so they can fake remembering you. That’s why I turn my badge around. The panic is delicious.
I attended my first NAIAS as Detroit Bureau Chief for CNN in 1990. Things were different back then. The first press event of the two days of media previews was the Pontiac brand. Being early in the morning they served us a breakfast that yielded more natural gas than fracking. Sausage, eggs, bacon, biscuits, and lots of coffee. It was wonderful.
The highest point on the floor was the Oldsmobile tower and photographers vied for a spot on the small platform to try to grab a panoramic view of the floor but ultimately failed since the platform was barely 10 feet off the ground. It did afford, however, excellent views of forklift drivers delivering carpet to each stand.
But OK, I lied. Of course the reporters all come to see the new vehicles and to interview high-ranking executives of the auto companies in hopes of scoring an exclusive.
It can be a little tricky, especially if an executive at an automaker doesn’t talk to his boss often enough.
This happened when a marketing chief at one auto company told me about a new incentive program to soon be launched. When I later interviewed the CEO for the AP and asked him about it, his face turned red and then redder when I told him who had given me that information. Apparently the marketing chief hadn’t given his boss the same scoop. The marketing chief wasn’t around for too many weeks after that. Oops!
For a few years CNN produced a special program on the auto show. It took different forms over the years from a series of long pieces to having a couple of our anchors come to Detroit to both complain about the cold in Detroit and introduce various segments.
One year, however, the president of the network decided I should do 6-8 minute walkarounds of featured vehicles with the CEO or top marketing exec. That didn’t always go so well.
After walking around the vehicle 3 times the CEO of that particular automaker stopped, gave me a pitiful look and said, “that’s all I know.”
On the other hand there was the case of then GM CEO Jack Smith who was stymied, but only temporarily, thanks to his smarts and good sense of humor.
I’d always had a good rapport with Smith and he went along with this idiotic scheme. Our segment with him featured an orange Chevy Silverado pickup truck. We walked around the thing 50 times and he told me everything he knew about it until I appeared to have stumped him. “I know the truck looks orange, Jack,” I said. “But you know how it is. You guys always come up with some crazy name for your colors. What do you call this?” The look of panic on his face lasted just a second until this very smart man recouped, cracking a triumphant smile and replying, “well Ed, I think we’ll just call it Orange.” His PR guy stopped crying from inside and the day was saved.
How nice a guy was Jack Smith? After I got laid off from CNN after 20 years…along with many others, I covered the GM holiday party for the Associated Press. While all the other beat reporters were around Jack greeted me warmly and said so everyone could hear, “biggest mistake CNN ever made.” Don Lemon was still 5 years off.
Can’t wait for this year’s auto show. If you’re going. Please turn your badge around.