Stepping inside the world of cars and crisis PR

October 28, 2014, 7:39 PM UTC
Ford Motor Co. Defends Explorer''s Safety
390593 06: Jason Vines, Ford Motor Company Vice President of Communications, points out a display to the press while Richard Parry-Jones, Ford''s Group Vice President of Global Development and Quality, waits his turn to speak June 14, 2001 at Ford''s World Headquarters in Dearborn, MI. The press conference was held to discuss the Firestone Tire Replacement Program and Explorer Safety Analysis. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Photograph by Bill Pugliano—Getty Images

Few industries are prisoner to the frightening randomness of negative publicity like the one that builds, markets and sells automobiles.

That’s why an automaker’s vice president of communications or public affairs always is – and must be – a worrier. At any moment the phone may ring, signaling a federal safety investigation, an awful review from Consumer Reports or a gaffe from the CEO that sinks the company’s stock.

Imagine the terror at the Ford Motor Co. (F) in 2000 when news began trickling in about Ford Explorers that overturned when their Firestone tires shredded, killing and maiming their occupants. Or when the New York Times and media figures like Arianna Huffington declared war on sport-utility vehicles. Or when Audis, and later Toyotas, were accused of “unintended acceleration.”

For anyone wishing to know exactly what it’s like to be a corporate first responder to public relations disasters, Jason Vines has just written a definitive account, What Did Jesus Drive? Crisis PR in Cars, Computers and Christianity (Waldorf Publishing). For most of his career, Vines, 54, has advised domestic and foreign automakers. He also served Detroit-based Compuware and, for a short stretch, Zondervan, a publisher of Christian literature.

Vines got his start at Chrysler (FCA) in the 1980s, an automaker so close to the edge of financial ruin that the slightest scandal or panic could tip it into oblivion. Chrysler’s minivan, its big moneymaker, at the worst possible moment ran into trouble in 1988 when its notorious A604 “Ultradrive” transmission started failing. Vines and his colleagues urged a “customers first” program to be open, honest and to replace every defective transmission, no matter the cost, helped avert bankruptcy.

The lessons learned during a career contending with such crises comprise the book’s spine. In 1996, journalists were following an alarming trend that materialized with the advent of front-seat airbags: the tendency of very small children to be hurt or killed when they deployed. (Airbags worked properly to protect larger children.) The solution was simple: Small children had to ride in the back seat. Vines helped orchestrate a media campaign aimed at parents: “The back is where it’s at.”

Recent news from General Motors (GM), documenting nearly 30 million vehicles recalled after a potentially deadly ignition switch problem was ignored or covered up by GM engineers and lawyers, suggest that safety and other crises are still routine in the automobile industry.

The Explorer debacle cost Vines his job as vice president of public affairs, as well as the job of Jacques Nasser, the CEO who hired him. A lesson learned is that public relations disasters, no matter how adroitly handled, claim many victims that often include the executives who are on the front lines.

Vines recounts how, during the tension-filled days preceding his ouster, he came to suspect that his phone was bugged by unnamed others at Ford whose purpose was to get to the bottom of leaks to the press. (A Ford spokesperson denied knowledge of eavesdropping.)

In today’s world, audio counter measures – or ACM, as corporate security calls it – have been replaced by email surveillance, which can determine leaks just as easily, if not more so, than bugging a telephone.

If anything, corporations today are vulnerable to PR disasters that travel far faster via Twitter than anything that 60 Minutes is able to disseminate. The lessons of transparency, honesty and “customer first” haven’t changed.