By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. In his excellent new book “What Did Jesus Drive? Crisis PR in Cars, Computers and Christianity” - due in stores and on the Internet on November 1st from Waldorf Publishing - Jason Vines takes the reader through a labyrinthine journey, oh hell, let’s call it for what it is – a roller-coaster ride of exhilarating highs and ball-busting lows - while regaling us with stories from one of the most colorful PR careers in the modern era.
Vines, who for one of his first memorable jobs as a kid back in Pella, Iowa, picked up after elephants and horses during the berg’s famous “Tulip Festival” parade, and as Vines puts it, “From that moment forward I was destined to clean up other people’s shit for a living…” went on to serve clients at Chrysler, Nissan, Ford (during the Firestone tire debacle), DaimlerChrysler (during the German occupation), Cerberus-owned Chrysler (briefly, during the Private Equity ruination helmed by the relentlessly incompetent Bob Nardelli), Compuware and even Zondervan, a Bible company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Throughout the book Vines takes us inside the business where no one has gone before – unless you were there – and it’s simply fascinating, because modern PR-wrangling involves backroom brawls, threatening conversations, a (very) few moments of unbridled joy, and enough stupid human tricks and wild-ass predicaments to last a lifetime.
I’m not sure what our AE readers have come to understand about PR through my columns, but I’ve tried to shed light on the backroom brawls and unbelievable shenanigans that go on behind the scenes in this business as much as I can, and even then I’ve only touched the surface. But Vines’ new book takes you right inside the swirling maelstrom of shit that too often defines modern Public Relations, and it’s both eye-popping to behold and mesmerizing at the same time. Like a train wreck that you can’t avert your eyes from.
It may be surprising to some who are new to the whole Public Relations game, but the inner workings of big-league PR are usually in direct contrast to the rigidly controlled, politically correct images that PR handlers so carefully craft for their CEO charges.
Behind the scenes it’s a back-alley brawl stopping just short – but not always, I might add – from fisticuffs. Depending on the day, PR handlers in the car biz fight with journalists, editors, TV news show producers, other PR handlers from rival car companies, professional company irritants, pitchfork-wielding anti-car safety advocates and environmental groups, and an assortment of “vermin” – as they see it – who come out of the woodwork to threaten their boss, or the company, or both.
The modern PR handler’s array of weaponry includes scathing email diatribes and verbal threats, political maneuvers and story plants carried out through mainstream and social media platforms, and good old-fashioned finger jabs to the chest delivered in person, just to name a few.
I’ve been on the receiving end of all of those aforementioned tactics, including one excruciatingly long dinner whereupon a certain PR supervisore from the Unctuous Prick school of PR Handling insulted me for an hour and a half. The food sucked too.
The only disappointing thing to me personally about Jason’s book is that he left out the monumental email battles the two of us had along the way. I will have to dig those up one day because they’re truly - even though the word is wildly overused – epic in every possible way.
In case you’re wondering, I have taken particular interest in the PR game over the years of writing this website because my father – Anthony G. – was in charge of Public Relations for General Motors during its golden era, from 1957 to 1979. Many professionals in this business owed their careers to my father, and he is widely credited with setting the standard for modern auto industry PR.
Ironically enough, he had his very own PR “crisis” to deal with back in the day when it was discovered that a rogue operator on the GM Legal staff had authorized some bumbling gumshoes in Washington, D.C., to follow Ralph Nader around. Bumbling, as in they engaged Nader several times with harassing and inappropriate questions, among a host of other things.
As my father “Tony” told it, once the news broke – apparently Nader walked right up to the private dicks one day and asked them why they were following him and who they worked for, and they replied, “We were hired by General Motors” – a hastily convened meeting took place with the very top brass in the company in the 14th floor boardroom, including chairman Fred Donner – the Original Unctuous Prick – president Jim Roche, my father and several other senior executives.
At that meeting, the head of GM Legal, one Aloysius Powers, admitted that unbeknownst to anyone else in the company – including my father – a female operative reporting to him and with his approval had authorized the tailing of Nader. Needless to say, that bumbling decision launched Ralph Nader’s career, who up until then was the obscure author of the diatribe against Detroit and the Chevrolet Corvair in particular – Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.
At the climax of the meeting my father was the one who, when asked, “what should we do?” bluntly said, “Jim (Roche) has to go before Congress in Washington and apologize, and as soon as possible too.” Which he did, with my father sitting right behind him in the front row.
The beauty of Jason Vine’s book is that he neatly places us in the thick of the modern PR era of sharp tongues and sharper elbows and it’s a fascinating read – and ride.
You can see Jason (with yours truly, along with Tom Walsh from The Detroit Free Press) discuss the book on host John McElroy’s Autoline program on PBS stations across the country (and on WTVS throughout Canada on cable) the weekend of November 1-2.
You will be entertained.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.