I’m a little out of sorts today. My family thinks I’ve actually descended into a deep cognitive hole. Here’s what’s going on. Early this morning I got out of bed, put on business clothes and really ugly, but comfortable shoes. In the dark I rummaged for a lanyard with some sort of badge attached that might have my name on it. I found one from 1998. Sure, why not. My name hasn’t changed although I’ve changed jobs four times since then. Who cares?
I slipped the lanyard over my head, got in my car and looked for a gathering of similarly dressed humans. I found them at a nearby Tim Hortons, although I didn’t know that’s where I was. Thinking otherwise, I held out the canvas shopping bag I toted and gamely asked the person behind the counter if they were giving out free lattes and danish, and maybe a press kit. Some sort of swag might be fun too. A tchochke I could later sell on eBay. Also…did she know where the free lunch was. I then started averting my eyes to the barista’s midsection. No, I wasn’t looking at that. I was searching for her badge because her name escaped me. Fact is, I never knew it. The bewildered young lady didn’t call the cops but the muscular manager gently led me to the door, quietly suggesting I was either lost…or deranged. Oh no…I protested. I’m at work. Right? Uh, no. The manager, being proactive, directed me to the Urgent Care Clinic across the street.
The on-duty shrink, Dr. Fucocktah, sat me down, asked pointed questions, some of which revealed I’m a long-time auto writer. I then went on to tell my story thusly.
My recent knee surgery is preventing me from covering the show for the first time since 1990 in the waning years of the last century. I begrudgingly gave up my credentials, thus breaking my 37 year string. My employer assigned them to someone else, which is like someone simply handing over your soul..or MoviePass. Some kid..by that I mean someone under 60, would use my badge to snag all the free cappuccinos, tote bags, finger sandwiches, pastries and dust-collecting swag I was totally entitled to. Cars? LOL! The stories have long been written before the show courtesy embargoed info provided by the automakers weeks in advance. The media preview days exist for grabbing an auto company bigwig for an interview in hopes of breaking a story, networking for your next job, catching up with old friends..in hopes they can help you get your next job and always, always, always, free stuff.
Without being there I would be confined to home, following coverage online and pining over the Maserati-shaped lasagna I’d be missing, along with the swell BMW backpacks stuffed with releases I’d never read. Doesn’t matter. It’s free. You just want it. But now I am bereft without my annual ordeal of attempting to find a parking space within seven miles of Cobo, breathing in the luscious propane fumes spewing from the forklifts whizzing down the aisles, playing chicken with photographers trying to get their shots.
I will miss the mind-numbing roundtables and endless scrums where, as a short guy, get a spectacular view of my competition’s asses.
But it’s what I do, and have done for so many years. Second, third week of January each year, it’s where I am. Doesn’t matter where I’ve worked, CNN, AP, Detroit News, FCA, Automotive News..I have my badge, my comfy shoes and 90 pound bag with my laptop and other reporting stuff. I’m ready to do battle…and win. It’s show time but not this time for this lame-kneed scribe.
He quickly diagnosed my malady.
“You, my pathetic patient, are suffering from a common condition we call COBO-NO-GO,” he pronounced. “It’s occurs when veteran auto writers, for one reason or another, aren’t able to cover the Detroit Auto Show but blindly go through the motions anyway. There’s no known cure.”
I know. I thanked him…and asked if he could set me up with a free espresso. He couldn’t…but handed me an attractive tote bag. It’s a first step.
Until next year.
I’ve worked every Detroit Auto Show since 1990 for four different employers: CNN, AP, The Detroit News, Chrysler, and its variations. Next week I’ll be back for a fifth. The difference is, for the first time since the 2005 show, I’ll be covering as a journalist once again, for Automotive News, after 11 years indentured as a PR guy for DaimlerChryslerChryslerFiatChryslerAutomobiles, or DCCFCA.
While at the Auburn Hills chameleon I headed the digital communications team, which handled social media, video production, webcasts and broadcast media for DCCFCA’s PR department. Oh, I’m sorry…Corporate Communications. I almost never left our stand, except to grab a mint from the young people just inside the show entrance offering them to obviously foul-breathed writers and flaks. I also hosted a broadcast-only session with our CEO. That was in another room far from the show floor. Soft drinks were available, but no mints. It was a fun job, for the most part but I quickly learned that asking an actual question of your own executives will earn you the same look I imagine Tippi Hendren gave Hartz Mountain birdseed ads. I simply asked a question that was on my mind and that any reporter might ask and got an answer that would make some news. My boss pulled me aside and barked, “Don’t you ever attempt to make news again!” Jeez…old instincts are hard to sublimate.
Well…..for 11 years I had to swallow my curiosity, or at least, not act on it. Not anymore. I retired from DCCFCA at the end of July and took a part-time job at Automotive News on their video news team. They bought me a tiny video camera and associated gear and gave me a list of important executives and analysts to interview…with the hope of making some news. They also told me to take my little camera and blast away at anything that catches my eye and turn it into a story. I’ve been flexing the part of my brain I wasn’t allowed to use for more than a decade to the point of asking anyone I see some sort of challenging question…just to get in shape. Questions like, “How long have you been shorting customers on french fries and skimming the rest for your own pimply self?” Or “I’ve seen you waiting at this bus stop every day for 3 weeks. What’s going on between you and the driver…are you having an a-fare?”
I think I’m ready now. I’ve been doing my homework, boning up for my interviews and I’ve made the mental leap from lobbing softballs to DFFCA execs such as “just how freakin’ great are we?” to firing darts at captains of the auto industry that will make them beg for mercy, or at least decaf coffee.
I’ll be so proud to wear a “Media” credential again and scam all the free food and coffee I can from the press room I was not allowed to enter as a PR guy. I’ll once again worm my way into scrums and lurch through the crowds of writers clawing their way to the automakers’ tables offering swag which will find its place in my basement, or eBay.
Yes, I’m excited to be back in the game again, returning to a profession I dearly missed on the best beat in the world. Now, who’s giving out free cappuccino?
We’ve enjoyed an unseasonably warm winter so far, but more powerful than El Nino, able to leap stationary fronts with a single low pressure system, able to bend the patience of steel-minded journalists…it’s the North American International Auto Show! That means snow is on the way, along with torrents of news and a deluge of drivable dreams under the Cobo canopy in downtown Detroit.
Truth be told there aren’t many surprises since the automakers generally give away the news in advance on an embargoed basis so their stories will show up in the morning papers. What’s left to wonder is what kind of swag awaits reporters who will do their best impressions of Ronda Rousey to fight for a free logo-embossed pretzel they can sell on eBay.
I worked the show for four different employers. I spent the longest time with CNN as the Detroit Bureau Chief. For a few consecutive years we produced special programs with the titles of “Route 1992, 1993, 1994, etc.” Production teams would traipse up from Atlanta and spend most of the week crabbing about the cold weather and the fact there wasn’t a Krystal burger joint in site. When one producer who had helmed a couple of these shows was finally re-assigned he got on his knees and..stayed there.
When I was the National Auto Writer for the Associated Press it was me against everyone. I thought I had a scoop when the then head of marketing for one automaker (I won’t say which because I work there) spilled the beans on a new incentive program. I later asked the CEO about that and his face got very red when he sputtered, “well he didn’t clear that with me!” “He” soon cleared out his office.
At the Detroit News, where I was the GM beat writer, I was told I had to come up with a lead story for the next day. We were in one of those hated group sessions with the GM CEO. No one was getting anything so I pulled the trigger asking him to react to the fact that Toyota would soon overtake the automaker as number one in sales. Let’s just say he became very unhappy, but coughed up the quote and I made my nut for that day.
Now that I work for an automaker, my main job is to make sure our stuff wins coverage, particularly from broadcast and digital media. It’s fascinating to be on the other side of the battle lines. I’ve come to appreciate the skills professional PR people need to hone to do their jobs properly, although as a former reporter, I can’t help telling a reporter who asks if they can get an interview regarding the new “Chrysler Impala” the view must be very dark inside their hindquarters.
Indeed, I look forward to the most important auto show of the year…seeing old friends, eating new shrimp and smiling at the nice young ladies offering mints as I tell them, “No thanks. I’ve breathed my last breath.”