Strange times at the Messe

September 16, 2005
Good luck, Geely. You're going to need it, based on the automaker's rather odd news conference at this year's Frankfurt Motor Show. Crowded into a corner of one of the outlying halls at the Frankfurt Messe, the Chinese automaker crammed in an assortment of executives, a troupe of traditional Chinese monkey-suited actors and dancers, a couple 100 journalists -- oh, and five new cars. Repeatedly emphasizing the literal translation of Geely, which means, "good luck," the automaker's struggling international manager said a little in a lot of words. Reporters continue to compare notes to try to understand exactly why Geely was there and what, if anything, it was selling. When TheCarConnection's publisher asked the simple question, "are you coming to Europe and the U.S.?" the response was, well, shaded. The translation was indeterminate, but according to our own sources, the answer, in Chinese was, "We are young and still need to grow up. It is still too early to talk about getting married." That is, of course, good news to the wife.

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At least Geely tried to do things the old-fashioned way, letting reporters actually ask some questions. There was a time when that was the primary purpose of an auto show press conference. These days, they're all about generating soundbytes and pretty pictures for the countless video crews. This approach has become universal, though it originated -- surprise -- back in the States. No company has been a more masterful ringmaster than Chrysler, which has tossed cars over the heads of its executives, smashed Jeeps through convention center windows, even posed nudes on stage in an odd attempt to recreate old master paintings. Some of the events run perfectly, even jaded print and e- journalists walking away chuckling. Then there was Frankfurt.

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"I just don't know what happened. We rehearsed this thing four times and each time, it went perfectly," lamented circus master, er, media chief Jason Vines. The veteran Chrysler event master's team had put together an amusing script for the launch of the new Patriot and Compass Jeeps, hiding the SUVs in a giant crate, then lowering them to the stage, where new CEO Tom LaSorda and his senior managers would appear to pry open the box. But as LaSorda faced the crowd for the executive equivalent of abracadabra, a nervous crane operator went into action. With the audience tittering, poor Tom turned around to see the top of the box already halfway back in the air. "I guess I didn't know my own strength," he muttered in ad lib. The mangled gag actually got more laughs than it might have had it worked perfectly, to be quite honest, and within an hour or so, Vines' face wasn't quite so flushed. The bottom line was that there were still plenty of pretty pics and soundbytes of the new Jeeps, and everyone will be talking about the event for a long time. Isn't that what PR is all about?
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