One of the most fascinating things about automobiles is the industry that makes them. Manufacturing, marketing, labor, finance, the car business is money and machines by the billion, men and women by the million, all working for and against each other on a colossal scale, astride an international stage. There’s a lot more than outsized executive egos riding on the results.
Though they’re fun, too.
Among the many jobs on whose satisfactory execution automobile makers’ success depends, one of the less remarked upon is public relations. Which is strange because PR departments serve a vital function, both as filters for the corporation, controlling what people see looking inside, and also as high-pressure information nozzles, delivering all that’s meant to go beyond the companies’ electrified fences and opaque walls.
From introducing the latest models and technologies to contouring the bad news of falling share prices and faulty products gone fatally wrong, the automotive PR person works in a high stress corner of a high stress business. Though well paid in its highest echelons, the job is usually and ultimately a misery and tends to eat its young. But it is a job that can be done well or done poorly. And like quarterbacks and wily campaign managers and other action-packed postings with typically short half-lives, top practitioners of the PR arts wear their scars proudly.
Which brings us to veteran automotive PR man Jason Vines and his unusually frank new autobiography, “What Did Jesus Drive?” Chronicling years of adventure and misadventure while holding top positions in automotive PR, with stints at Ford, Chrysler, Nissan and AMC, Vines reveals much about these firms’ rocky pasts, while also relating lessons learned at a Detroit computer maker with ties to disgrace-bound mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and a Michigan Bible publisher; hence the e-book’s subtitle,“Crisis PR in Cars, Computers and Christianity.”
Vines did his job well; that is one inescapable point of this book and it shouldn’t be a surprise. What publicist would think to cast his- or herself in loser light? But it takes a special person to write a book about a career as a crisis manager in automotive PR and make it a compelling read for a general audience and Vines has done that.
Of course, automotive journalists are well situated to evaluate and individually assess PR professionals for professionalism, having so much direct contact with them. Car writers are forever being informed, corrected, scolded, flattered and spun by PRs, often on car launches set in remote locations, where long meals, fine wines and late night conversation reveal more about car companies and the characters who people them than a lifetime of reading press releases. Yet the more time you spend with PR people, the more you realize the myriad anxieties of their job, as they try to make the best of whatever crappy hand they’ve been dealt. For that is their job. And Jason Vines was dealt some of the crappiest; his career has landed him in place after place where through no apparent fault of his own -- but eerily just the same – disaster and chaos were about to strike.
The author pulls a few punches but not as many as he might in a narrative that races at breakneck speed through some of the most well-known high- but mostly low-light hits of the industry’s last 30 years, so many of which seemed to find him. In a sense, it’s hard to tell the publicist’s good news and bad apart as often they are doing their best work when their company’s world is collapsing.
Automotive industry is a contact sport with plenty of spikes up adventure, a game rife, too, with idiocy, cheating and backstabbing ill-feeling. "What Did Jesus Drive?" reads like a virtual war diary, recounting tours of duty managing press for Chrysler during its acquisition and later its abrupt sale by Daimler-Benz; for Nissan when it launched its unexpected (and still standing) alliance with Renault and perhaps most memorably for Ford during the Explorer-Firestone tire imbroglio of 2000-2001.Vines was in a hot seat for so many of the key moments in the recent history of the modern car business and it’s startling to remember how depressing so much of it was. Though it’s still amusing to read about the time Chrysler filmed a commercial pairing its former chairman, the superannuated industrialist Lee Iacocca with rapper Snoop Dogg of “Gin and Juice” and “Doggy Fizzle Televizzle” fame.
As a 50-something, Vines is not presently in the thick of the auto industry. But whether he’s angling for a return to the big show or not, he names names in some volume here and jabs more than you might expect. But that’s Jason Vines. Profane, hard-smoking, booze-positive, and right wing as hell. But big-hearted, tireless, and strangely open-minded. Frank, smart and passionate. Only such a person could write this sloppy, wet kiss of a book, a headlong stumble of a memoir that reminded me of standing drunk on a porch in Arizona at three AM on a cold night, staring at stars while smoking an infrequent and ill-advised cigar and arguing with a guy who had two eyes in one socket and talked a mile a minute but somehow made uncanny sense while disagreeing with me. That would be Jason Vines.
We didn’t always see eye to eye. Where I had written the world’s first anti-SUV op-ed for the New York Times, as the title of his book alludes to, Vines years later would enthusiastically fight the “What Would Jesus Drive?” anti-SUV meme, as a PR flak, with a personable, lower-middle-class guy from Michigan he’d found named Jesus, who drove a large but humble, used SUV. “What Did Jesus Drive?” his campaign asked, giving voice to all the people who didn’t want to have rich liberals telling them what cars they should and shouldn’t own. It was a hard point to argue.
If you wondered during the Firestone fiasco what Ford was thinking when it had Jac Nasser, its largely unknown, Lebanese-born CEO, speak on national television in a paid advertisement about the crisis – and deliver a sideways apologia delivered in Australian-accented English, while company president Billy Ford stood by, mute -- you must read Vines. You may have been confused as to who was at fault in the whole Ford-Firestone matter, which pitted companies with 100 years of shared history against each other. But Vines isn’t. It’s Firestone with whom he’s still mad. Nor was he impressed by Robert Eaton, the Chrysler chairman who engineered the venerable firm’s sale to Mercedes Benz in a so-called “marriage of equals” that was anything but. However, Vines holds Daimler’s Dieter Zetsche in such high regard that he neglects to mention how Zetsche helped run Chrysler further into the ground when he was in charge after Eaton, and before, in its cruelest act, Daimler offloaded Chrysler on Home Depot refugee Robert Nardelli’s Cerberus Capital, the numb-skulled private equity firm who all but ruined the company, while leading it into bankruptcy. Vines doesn’t like Nardelli much, nor should anyone.
Adding a throughline to his stories, Vines emphasizes a few basic principles for the proper conduct of corporate PR. To wit: The communications team needs a seat at the big table. They can never to be lied to or blindsided by management; they need to know the real truth. Vines wants a commitment from management to always do the right thing by its customers. And to never blame the customer when he is at fault, at least publicly. All good, sensible stuff.
Vines hates Naderites, however, and is thoroughly unimpressed with trial lawyers, large swathes of the media and most government regulators. Even though he doesn’t trust manufacturers either, he is happy to carry their grudges and share their blinkered, sometimes paranoid worldview. And yet he gets just as incensed that Firestone’s foot-dragging denials may have led to deaths that a little more care and a lot more honesty might have prevented. Contradictory? A little. But Vines wears his heart on his sleeve and manages to tell a pretty good story about the behind the scenes workings of the automobile business. Like all the best PRs, he gets his message across.