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Inside the ‘upside down’ of post COVID-19 Automotive Media Relations

By Brent Snavely, Senior Director

The automotive industry isn’t going to be the same after it restarts all of its plants assembly and suppliers across North America following a nearly three-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 global pandemic and neither will the media relations strategies required to effectively tell your story.

Before the pandemic, the global economy was rolling – automakers were profitable, annual U.S. industry sales were still humming along at 16 to 17 million new vehicles per year, Uber and Lyft appeared to be the unstoppable kings of ridesharing. Meanwhile, the only stories that really mattered to most of the automotive media had to include the words “mobility,” “autonomous” or “electric.”

By March, all of that changed and we are now in the “upside down” – to borrow a phrase from the popular Netflix series Stranger Things.

The national average price for a gallon of gas is less than $2, several automakers have canceled or delayed autonomous vehicle programs and U.S. auto sales hit a 30-year low in April, according to Edmunds.com after falling more than 50 percent compared with the same period in 2019.

Automakers that made commitments to invest billions to develop autonomous and electric vehicles and suppliers who geared up for those programs now must re-evaluate everything as financial losses mount.

In this upside down, the stories that reporters will be writing about for the remainder of 2020 will be vastly different than what they were looking when 2020 began. At Lambert, we expect the following dominant story lines:

Who can pivot and innovate? Reporters are already latching onto any story about new technology that automakers and suppliers create that kills germs and disinfect automotive interiors. “Your next car could be virus-proof” Free Press columnist Mark Phelan Wrote.

Financing and liquidity: “Cash is king,” as they say, and companies that have deep pockets will be viewed as having an advantage. Reporters are suddenly interested in stories such as the $1.2 billion Marelli recently secured and the $9 billion Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is said to be on the cusp of obtaining.

Detroit versus Silicon Valley: This narrative faded away in recent years but tech companies have been making bold moves in recent weeks. Intel acquired Moovit for $1 billion in early May and Amazon.com is said to be eying driverless vehicle startup Zoox for several hundred million dollars. Meanwhile, the Detroit Three collectively lost $4.5 billion during the first quarter as GM closed down  GM closed down ride-sharing service Maven and Ford postponed plans for autonomous vehicle service until 2020.

Fits and starts: Automakers restarted most assembly plants in the U.S. in May but two automakers – Ford and Mercedes-Benz – have had to close plants back down due to COVID-19 cases or parts shortages. Media organizations will keep a close eye on plant openings and closures for automakers and suppliers alike.

Leadership: Visionary, inspirational leaders often emerge in a crisis. Is your company led by one? Journalists are typically eager to tell the behind the scenes story that illustrates how a CEO inspired his or her team to navigate the company through the chaos.

Winners and losers: Every crisis brings corporate casualties and those stories will be covered closely. See: Hertz files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Our advice? Don’t try to avoid coverage. Engage. Be transparent with employees and media and tell your story.

Are you ready for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement? USMCA will take effect on July 1. Is your company ready? How does it impact you? What changes did you make to prepare? Reporters will be eager to listen if your company is willing to talk about this.

The personal dynamics of automotive media relations is also changing. The journalism industry – already under extreme pressure for years – is under more pressure now than ever. Many publications have laid off reporters or put them on furlough. Once again, this means there is more industry news than ever to be reported and fewer reporters than ever to write about that news.

What can you do to tell your story?

If you trying to raise awareness of your company, gain credibility for your brand, and position yourself as an industry innovator in the media you need to be able to find a way to place your company somewhere in the framework of trends outlined above.

Here are some tips:

  • Survival: What did your company do to make it through the crisis?
  • Don’t be tone deaf: This is the worst time ever to simply push shiny innovations without acknowledging the difficulties the entire industry – if not the world – is going through
  • Be patient with journalists: They swamped with news, they might have been forced to take several weeks off without pay, and they probably know friends and colleagues who have recently lost their jobs
  • What did you do to change? Talk about what’s selling and what’s not. Do you have a product that was 5% of your business at the start of the year that is in huge demand now? Talk about that – and be willing to talk about the products you are selling less of
  • Health and safety: It’s a cliché but also critical. Make sure your message, whatever it is, explains how you are putting the health and safety of your workers first – and don’t fake it

To bring clarity and access to automotive media, Lambert hosted a virtual roundtable. Journalists shared the key stories and trends they are watching and how they see the automotive and mobility landscape changing as it emerges from the pandemic and recent events.

Sometimes, no news is good news

Now, more than ever, it is also important to focus on internal communications and communicate effectively with your employees as they return to work. Getting positive media coverage is always great. But this is also the time to remember you do not want to be the company that gets media attention because employees are angry or confused about your safety protocols or because of the layoffs you have had to put in place.

If you are in a difficult financial position it is important to double down on internal employee communications as you get your company through these hard times. Carry out job reduction actions with as much empathy and transparency as possible. This is not only the right thing to do, it will help also help to minimize the risk that job cuts are discussed on social media by angry and disgruntled employees.

Finally, have a plan in place to respond to the media before job cuts or plant closures are announced.

At Lambert, we are available if you need help crafting strategies to carry out any of these internal or external media relations needs. We can provide everything from high-level media relations counsel and long-term strategies for elevating brand awareness to turn-key crisis statements about layoffs and job reduction actions. We have also published a Post-COVID Shutdown Communications Handbook for Automotive & Mobilities companies that is available for download.

Contact Brent Snavely at 313.378.6082 or follow @brentsnavley on Twitter.