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“Hi everyone, I am heading out to [INSERT AUTOMOTIVE CONFERENCE OR AUTO SHOW] in a few weeks – who else is going? Does anyone know when the press conference schedule will be announced?”

I am betting the question above, or some version of it, looks familiar to automotive journalists and communications professionals alike.

Over the past five to 10 years, we have collectively witnessed a monumental shift when it comes to how valuable auto shows and other industry events are for news, story gathering, networking and communicating a company’s message.

There was a time not too long ago when automotive journalists and PR professionals knew exactly what shows they needed to attend, or exhibit at, and could plan their schedule before the year even began.

Today, question marks loom over almost every major event – and attending events often doubles as an intelligence gathering effort used to get the latest gossip on what to really expect at the next industry event or to decide if it’s even worth attending a particular event .

This has made budget decisions, communications plans, sponsorship plans and travel plans far more difficult than in the past for companies looking to make an impact.

A lot of attention has been paid to auto shows, which draw far fewer automakers, executives and high profile product reveals than in the past, and, in part because of that, a shrinking media pool.

In 2023, the New York International Auto Show pleasantly exceeded relatively low expectations, the Detroit Auto Show was very different than previous years and the LA Auto Show was better than most expected given the lack of a publicly announced press conference schedule less than a month in advance.

Stellantis this week illustrated this trend as it announced that it is “evaluating participation in auto shows on a case-by-case basis, while prioritizing opportunities for consumers to experience our vehicles first-hand.” According to media reports, that means the company is pulling corporate support from most auto shows nationwide, leaving the funding of its presence at any remaining shows up to auto dealers. 

But the challenge for corporate communications teams at Tier One suppliers and other automotive communications professionals also extends to the rapidly changing landscape of industry events and conferences.

The Center for Automotive Research’s annual Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City remains a wonderful place for industry insiders to gather and network, but it’s been a decade or more since the CEO of an automaker was a keynote speaker there, and media attendance has been sparse in recent years.

Emerging shows to watch

Meanwhile, other industry events have emerged. The Battery Show, for example, has become a jam-packed, must-see event in recent years – and will move from Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi to Huntington Place in Detroit this year.

Reuters’ Automotive USA 2024 conference is expensive for sponsors, but has established itself as an intriguing place to be, is managed by smart, energetic staff and has the potential to evolve and grow as an event.

And then there is CES – the 800-pound gorilla of events and conferences that is the place to go to see the latest automotive technology but is so big and packed with so many global companies making news that it comes with its own complex set of logistical and budget challenges.

Adapting to the new reality

So, what should PR professionals do amid all this uncertainty? Here are some thoughts and questions to work through:

  • Be there. Spend the time and money to go to these events and observe what works and what doesn’t.
  • Talk to industry sources before and after the events to get their observations and insights.
  • Ask conference organizers to meet and provide an overview of what they are planning for the show months in advance. Ask if they have any major CEOs that have made commitments to speaking because this, more than almost any other factor, drives media attendance.
  • Understand that the media landscape is changing, and the media is making similar difficult decisions about travel costs and whether they attend.
  • Smart planning: It’s not just about your budget. Think hard about questions such as what kind of news can we make? Does the conference or event coincide with a significant product announcement?
  • Also consider which company executives are available for keynote speeches, panel discussions or even to attend and conduct private one-on-one interviews.
  • To generate media interest, most companies need to offer the CEO, or the company’s highest ranking North American executive.
  • Set realistic expectations with key stakeholders about media coverage.
  • Make sure everyone understands that, for some companies, a half-dozen introductory interviews is what success may look like and can pay off in big ways in the future.
  • Play the “long game” with journalists. Understand it’s not just about trying to get immediate coverage. Often, introductory conversations, meetings over coffee, etc. can be used to create relationships with media that will pay off in the future but may not result in immediate stories.
  • Make sure you can clearly communicate to reporters what the news will be and/or what executives they can talk to.

Above all, communications professionals must be willing to reevaluate the entire landscape every year and be willing to adapt.

It’s now become a cliché to say the automotive industry is going to change more in the next five to 10 years than in the past 100 as the industry goes through a transition to more electric vehicles. If that statement is even half true, you can bet the auto shows and automotive industry conference landscape will continue to change right along with it.

Brent Snavely is vice president of media relations at Franco. Connect with him on  X, LinkedIn and Threads.