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Review: PR Veteran Jason Vines’ New Memoir

Guest Column

Sandon VoelkerphotographerDavid Kileywriter

"What Did Jesus Drive: Crisis PR in Cars, Christianity and Computers"
By Jason H. Vines [Waldorf Publishing, 2014]
Paperback: $18.95

Auto industry memoirs have a limited audience. Auto executives. Some dealers. The automotive media. True car nuts. In the case of Jason Vines' new book, "What Did Jesus Drive," the former head of communications for Ford, Nissan, and Chrysler does not disappoint in delivering a worthwhile drive down memory lane with such episodes as the Firestone tire recall, the near-acquisition of Nissan by Chrysler, Chrysler's acquisition by Cerberus Capital, and the war against SUVs.

Vines is a brand unto himself in the auto industry. He is known for staging audacious car-show product launches worthy of Busby Berkeley or Ed Wood. (Who can forget the cattle drive down Jefferson Avenue to unveil a new Dodge Ram?) And he is respected for his power of persuasion with the executives who seek him out and reporters who like his style.

If you are, however, risk averse, conservative in your approach to business, lacking a sense of humor, uptight, or perhaps wanting to be insulated from the media and reality, then Vines is not your guy. He famously did not gel with Ford Chairman William Clay Ford and Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli. There are plenty of uptight staffers who were happy to see Vines not be their boss any longer so they could retreat into their cocoons of corporate paranoia and silent but deadly turf battles.

Why read the book? If you remember the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire debacle of 2000-2001, a fiasco of epic, multibillion-dollar proportions that took down CEO Jacques Nasser and crippled Ford for years, you'll want to hear from the guy inside the company who worked for months to defend the Blue Oval and throw Japanese-owned Firestone under the bus as many times as possible.

A communications chief is usually very close to the boss. Vines is no exception. He has been a very close adviser to Nasser as well as Chrysler CEOs Lee Iacocca and Dieter Zetsche. There are nuggets here that, while sometimes not surprising, are nonetheless juicy to read if you have lived through the auto industry wars.

Ford Chairman and former CEO Bill Ford had a direct leak line to the New York Times during the Firestone tire recall. That ought to make reporters who were killing themselves 18 hours a day covering that story have warm and fuzzy thoughts for the chairman. Reporters know auto execs play favorites with news organizations and often make it easy for some outlets in exchange for better coverage. But it's cool to see it spelled out by a guy who knows the details:

  • Ford taps its executives' phones and offices. Ford has created a culture in which employees can feel like they are working for the Defense Department or like the NSA is looking over their shoulders.
  • Chrysler CEO Bob Eaton refused to recall Chrysler minivans against the advice of his own people.
  • Lee Iacocca almost became a pitchman for Nissan after he left Chrysler (a juicy little story that was reported at the time, but is nearly lost to fading memory until Vines brings it back to life). Vines was the guy in Iacocca's apartment trying to sell the American icon on switching teams.
  • Zetsche, during his time as CEO of Chrysler, was compelled to ingest secondhand weed smoke from rapper Snoop Dog and tried in earnest to help former Detroit mayor-cum-miscreant and convicted criminal Kwame Kilpatrick out of his jams in the name of helping the city of Detroit.

About trying to work for Nardelli under Cerberus Capital Management, Vines writes, "I feel like I'm trying to make Hitler look good." Nardelli is one of the most narcissistic people to ever sit in the C-suite anywhere, and he has a reputation for despising the media. A maverick PR man and a media-hating CEO is a match made in hell.

But don't get the idea Vines is all brains and brag. He has also been responsible for some real punchbowl poop. He was the genius behind a truly awful campaign at Chrysler, "Ask Dr. Z," which attempted to make a star out of Zetsche. There was a website and even Zetsche's cartoon image on the side of a race car. The German exec said at the time -- looking a little like a 10-year-old who had been dragged to the ladies clothing store by his mother -- "Jason wanted to just make the logo about my mustache, but I drew the line at being reduced to a piece of hair."

The title of the book comes from a campaign hatched by media queen Arianna Huffington. It is a clumsy if memorable effort to shine a stink-light on the auto industry and companies like Ford, who make the bulk of their profits selling gas-guzzling pickups and SUVs to people who usually drive alone, carry no cargo, and would rather drive over an electric vehicle than own one. If you engage Vines on the topic of fuel economy, the role of the government in dictating consumer purchases, or gas taxes (he leans Republican), be ready to joust with a sharp-witted, former standup comedian with total command of his facts. If you are a CEO preparing for a Capitol Hill grilling or a politician prepping for a debate, Vines is the guy you want on your side.

If you have lived and worked in the auto industry, you will want to add "What Did Jesus Drive?" to your shelf of worthwhile insider memoirs about how things really work -- and don't work -- behind the headlines and press releases of the business.