Detroit Free Press Tom Walsh column [Detroit Free Press :: ]
(Detroit Free Press (MI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 10--From the family feud between Ford and Firestone over tire failures in SUVs to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's scandalous downfall and today's furor over defective General Motors ignition switches, Detroit has seen lots of high-profile crises in recent years.
And Jason Vines always seems to be around, trying to put out the fires -- or to stoke a heated reaction.
Now Vines, Detroit's most provocative public relations showman in memory, is going public with the stories behind the big stories of his career with a memoir entitled, "What Did Jesus Drive: Crisis PR in Cars, Computers and Christianity."
Today, Waldorf Publishing is launching online promotion of the book, which will be available Nov. 1 as an eBook and Nov. 15 as a paperback and audio book.
"Relax, this is not a book about Jesus," Vines writes in the introduction to his 20-chapter tale that concludes with an epilogue dubbed "Government Motors on Fire," alluding to the current recall travails of GM and its CEO Mary Barra.
Jesus does appear in two chapters, though -- more on that later.
Vines, 54, has headed PR for Chrysler, Ford, Nissan North America, Compuware and religious book publisher Zondervan. He also wrote jokes for Lee Iacocca speeches in the 1980s, mounted an auto industry defense again the persecution of SUVs two decades later, and lobbied for rescue loans to keep GM and Chrysler afloat in 2008.
In an interview last week, Vines warned me that "this is not a PG-13 book." Beware of salty language and blunt opinions, in other words. Indeed, his introduction ends with a recollection of when, as an 8-year-old in a small-town Iowa parade, he swept up after the mounted police, trailing the horses' rear ends. "From that moment on," he writes, "I was destined to be cleaning up other people's -- for a living."
Vines has a longstanding reputation for PR stunts and provocative ads. At the 2008 auto show in Detroit, he orchestrated a cattle drive at Cobo Center for the rollout of the new Dodge Ram truck.
And in 2003, when critics were charging that driving gas-guzzling SUVs was immoral, Vines, working for a PR agency, countered with a full-page "What Would Jesus (Rivera) Drive?" newspaper ad -- featuring a Waterford man who used his two SUVs to haul grandchildren around to their activities.
Over the top? "I prefer to think of it as doing things that cut through the clutter and get the message out there clearly," he told me, adding that one of his favorite ads was the tandem of Iacocca and rapper Snoop Dogg promoting Chrysler cars in 2005. "One of the funniest I've ever seen. It cut through the clutter."
There was nothing funny, however, about multiple corporate crises where Vines was on the front lines.
At Compuware, just days after cofounder Peter Karmanos Jr. hired Vines in early 2008 to help rebrand the computer software firm, the text-message scandal over Detroit's then-mayor-then Kwame Kilpatrick's extramarital affair with chief of staff Christine Beatty erupted.
Amid criminal probes and growing calls for Kilpatrick's ouster, Karmanos, a Detroit booster who had moved his own firm from the suburbs to the city core, publicly spoke out in support of the embattled mayor.
Vines and other top Compuware executives tried to discourage him. "But Pete dug in his heels," Vines said, and even hired Kilpatrick and loaned him money when Kilpatrick resigned from office later that year.
The episode "permanently tainted Pete," Vines said, but it also damaged the relationship between the mercurial Karmanos and his outspoken PR guy. Vines departed Compuware before the end of 2008, enlisting in a campaign for a federal rescue of GM and Chrysler.
As GM and Chrysler were whisked through Chapter 11 bankruptcies in the summer of 2009, Vines received a surprising phone call. A former colleague was seeking his help to avert a budding crisis at Zondervan, the world's largest Christian Bible publisher, based in Grand Rapids.
A New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible had rendered the good book somewhat gender-neutral, sparking outrage and a boycott -- "the evangelical community went nuts," Vines said.
Chapter 20 of his book, titled "On a Mission from God," is the second appearance of Jesus as Vines relates his Zondervan experience.
By 2011 he was back doing mostly automotive PR again with agency FleishmanHillard, and consulted with GM on what he now calls a "fake crisis" over a federal probe of a fire involving a Chevrolet Volt battery pack.
"There was nothing wrong with the vehicle," Vines told me last week, "it was NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) acting like a bunch of morons and it really hurt the electric vehicle industry."
GM offered loaner cars or Volt buybacks to owners worried about possible fires, but got few takers.
"One of the overriding principles throughout the book," Vines said, "is that the safety and satisfaction of customers is paramount."
GM clearly met that test in response to what he felt was a NHTSA overreaction in the case of one Volt battery fire -- but that made GM's decade-long delay in dealing with a defect prior to the 2014 ignition-switch recall a total head-scratcher for Vines.
Vines has steadily deflected news media requests for comment on the GM ignition-switch crisis until now, while he was finishing work on his book.
"They've got a hell of a situation here," he said last week when I asked him about it. "How do you take care of some customers but not others?"
"It's one thing being the butt of a joke by Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien," he added, "but when you're the opening skit on Saturday Night Live, that is never a good thing," referring to a parody of Barra's testimony on the recall before Congress.
The publisher's news release about the book says, "Jason Vines takes readers on a graphic, sometimes sad and often hilarious behind-the-scenes romp through some of the most publicized and studied crises in recent history."
It also promises "unique photos, some of which have never been seen by the public." One wonders; will those be non-PG-13, too?
Contact Tom Walsh: 313-223-4430 or firstname.lastname@example.org, also follow him on Twitter @TomWalsh_freep.
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