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WHAT DID JESUS DRIVE?
Crisis PR in Cars, Computers, and Christianity
By Jason H. Vines
399 pages $18.95 USA
Review by Doug Stokes
Okay, first things first. The “Jesus” in the title of this book really refers to two people. One is the traditional religious figure Jesus Christ*, the other was a retired GM employee, Viet Nam vet, and grandfather named Jesus Riviera.
Mister Rivera does not appear until Chapter 24 in Vines’ book, but taking his story and the particular crisis that it applies to first might help some readers to get at least a few feet past this book’s rather unusual title (Vines as we will soon discover, by any measure you wish to apply, is a high-powered crisis magnet).
So here it is: In the early part of this decade, there was a groundswell of eco-awareness that in some cases bordered on hysteria. One such case was the fixation on how horrendous those big, nasty, gas-gobbling SUVs were for the environment. Car dealer parking lots were torched, private owners found nasty notes on their windshields, scurrilous bumper stickers were stuck to their paint work, and even tires were slashed.
Vines (who had just left** his public relations chief position with Ford) had begun working for a PR organization which had spun off an association (Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America). He saw an opportunity to counter the “What would Jesus drive?” sentiment that was rampant in the day’s anti-auto press with a tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign featuring the above mister Riviera, his family, and his (not one but) two trusty, reliable and totally-sensible (for him and his family) SUVs.
Needless to say, the campaign sparked a lot of media attention, the subject was opened up, the potentially deadly tactics of the budding eco-terrorists were decried, and the SUV-as-culprit-for-everything-wrong-with-the-world, was eventually defused.
What I really should have said in the beginning of this review is (except for the fact that it’s published as a true story) Mister Vines’ very first-person tale told here could easily be confused with a number of fictional heroic protagonists. Indeed, and by turns there are whiffs of Zelig, Horatio Alger, Balso Snell, Odysseus, Forrest Gump, and Icarus that flicker out of the pages.
Published as a novel, it would be hard to believe that one man could have been involved in so many high profile, high drama, high stakes automotive (and other) industry events. I read it almost like the diary of some old time swashbuckling adventurer. But this is no novel.
This man has led a very full life in Automotive PR (and briefly in the Bible trade; no, really) that anyone who has followed that blood sport will easily recognize in this (almost) 400-pager as one hell of a personal highlight-lowlight reel.
By the numbers, Vines takes his readers on a personal road trip that includes stops in top PR positions at all of the big three automotive manufactures, plus Nissan, that Bible publishing company and the tech giant, Compuware.
True to this book’s undertitle (“Crisis PR in Cars”) Mister Vines is, by turns, directly involved in some of the biggest public relations nightmares of the last few decades—including serious defects with Chrysler’s weird “Ultra Drive” transmission and (later) their faulty minivan door latches.
Vines also deals with front seat airbags maiming (and worse) little kids, the Ford Explorer/Firestone Tire firestorm (no better word for that one), and wrestling with “60 Minutes” over the rules of engagement for a mission-critical interview with the top guy (at the time) in his company (always fun for the automotive PR guys).
Additionally, this guy was involved in dealing with what turned out to be bogus fire hazard claims against the Chevy Volt, and was front and center for the ominously-named Cerberus*** takeover of what was left of Chrysler after the Mercedes marriage of inconvenience. Right at the end of THIS book, Vines gets into GM’s faulty ignition lock situation, which still burns brightly in the daily press. (The even more recent multi-marque Claymore Mine-like Takata airbag shrapnel crisis had not yet hit the fan hard when this book went to print.)
One more “little” thing about the Ford/Firestone conflagration that Vines lets on in this confessional is evidence indicating his phone (along with those of other top execs) was tapped by order of the guy who whose family name was on the building in big script letters. It’s not a pretty story, but plainly plausible.
Within the business (and much like a number of the people that he dealt with professionally with over the years—like Carlos Ghosn, Bill Ford Jr., Lee Iacocca, Dieter Zetsche, Bob Nardelli, Jacques Nasser, and Bob Lutz—Vines has a number of slavish admirers and about an equal number of vehement detractors. Polarizing? Yeah. All those guys can be so described, and Vines is all of that (and more since this book hit the streets). He’s that guy who’s just a natural-born, action-orientated first responder. You know, the people who run AT a building burning rather than away from it.
This book is a 20+ years personal story of a front man and communicator for a number of national companies in their times of trial and tribulation. Plain spoken Vines takes great care of his friends and freely (and directly) calls out those that he’s been crossed by. Holding back is not high on his list of priorities.
I recommend this book highly if only to re-energize Santayana’s hoary: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
In his back page acknowledgments, Vines readily admits that his account is “a roller-coaster story”. That’s an affirmative, but I recommend taking the ride with this book. It wasn’t always pleasant, but it sure was exciting.
SPOILER ALERT—For me, the paragraph that follows is the core of the book … heck, it actually gives the plot away. I state it here in hopes that people will read this book.
“And, whether you’re in a crisis, are launching a product, promoting a cause or rewriting a Bible, solid communications folks serve their organizations best by following three character attributes … be faithful, truthful, and be decisive. Good organizations will appreciate it; organizations that don’t, well, will die sooner or later”
NOTES—If you’ve read some of my former LA Car reviews, you know that with any non-fiction book, I invariably turn to the last page first.
No, not to find out “who shot John?”, but to look at the index, check out the names and places that make up the cast and crew of that particular volume.
This book has such a list—a 13-page list here called Reference Pages. And, if readers have any interest in the automotive industry, they’ll easily find many names and places that will be quickly recognized. The fascinating part of this book is how these familiar names have intertwined with Vines over the years.
PERSONAL—As a (real life) PR guy myself, I’ve faced a few crisises over the years. Among them, (1) Mount St. Helens popping and just about cancelling a national championship racing event that I was one of organizers for, (2) a tire company taking the racing organization (that I was the executive director of) into court in a Federal restraint of trade action, (3) the owners of the racing series I worked for being murdered in their own driveway, (4) a driver being killed on opening night the racetrack where I worked. And, twelve years later, those track owners capriciously declaring a crushing Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Each very heavy at the time, of course, so one would be correct in guessing that I read this book with more than the usual bit of empathy for Vines.
As it turns out, the chain-smoking (Marlboros) Vines’ PR adventures all end up with the same admonishment/advice: Tell the damn truth. If you don’t know, don’t make stuff up. And listen more than you speak. As I said a couple of ’graphs ago, you don’t need to be in the PR biz to get a good ride out of this one.
*There are a few (fully in context) times in this book where Vines indicates that he is a (Christian) believer, but he never postures or proselytizes; he actually does as he believes.
**He was fired.
***A capitol management named for a mythical three-headed dog that was said to guard the gates of Hell should have been a clue that a shitstorm was on the near horizon.
- Doug Stokes
Jason Vines may not be the most eloquent writer in the industry; the book has more F bombs than a Tarentino movie—and it could have used another once-over in the copy edit department. But Vines just may be the best storyteller. He’s so good that you’ll need to excuse me while I repeat that well-worn utterance of praiseworthy paperbacks: Once you pick it up, it’s hard to put it down.
Vines has witnessed some inside-the-industry stories that few others can claim to share. On more than one occasion, he’s been cited as the top communicator in his field. With that kind of moxie, it’s no wonder he was right in the middle of managing the PR for the some of the worst car crises this generation has seen. While his personal politics can be described as decidedly right-of-center, here’s what Democratic Campaign and Media Consultant Joe Trippi had to say about Vines: “Get me Jason Vines! How I wish as the candidates I worked for screamed, screwed, or gaffed their way into crisis, I had called on Jason Vines. This is more than a corporate PR book – it’s a masters’ class, no holds barred, white knuckle ride of insights and wisdom for anyone whose job it is to communicate for a living.”
“What Did Jesus Drive” may indeed qualify as an automotive manifesto for crisis public relations. I have a hunch, however, it won’t be the last book from Vines. Read his blog and subsequent interviews, and it’s clear that Vines has much more to share. Here’s what he told Car and Driver’s John Pearley Huffman about Nissan’s decision to move its headquarters from California to Tennessee: “It was a colossal mistake. They lost their character. And Toyota ought to stay on the West Coast. Stop trying to Americanize yourself. People buy you because you’re Japanese.” And about automotive journalists?: “I’m very proud that most of the journalists and I became close friends. The only ones I didn’t become friends with were assholes—like Keith Bradsher of the New York Times. Just an absolute prick. Did I just say that? Yeah. He’s a piece of shit.”
We look forward to hearing more from Vines. - Roy Nakano
To purchase the book on Amazon, click here.