ANALYSIS: Profile - Harris: GM’s internal combustion engine/Steve Harris runs one of the largest PR departments in the world at General Motors, but he still finds time to visit his mother every week. That’s just the kind of guy he is. John

Back in the late 1960s, California native Steve Harris was a journalism student at the University of Southern California, working toward a career in newspapers. But as graduation neared, he heard about a two-year program at General Motors that would allow him to travel the world. Two years of being paid to see the sights sounded good, so he took the job thinking he’d save enough money to buy a small-town newspaper and pursue his reporting dreams. That’s not quite the way it worked out.

Back in the late 1960s, California native Steve Harris was a journalism student at the University of Southern California, working toward a career in newspapers. But as graduation neared, he heard about a two-year program at General Motors that would allow him to travel the world. Two years of being paid to see the sights sounded good, so he took the job thinking he’d save enough money to buy a small-town newspaper and pursue his reporting dreams. That’s not quite the way it worked out.

Back in the late 1960s, California native Steve Harris was a

journalism student at the University of Southern California, working

toward a career in newspapers. But as graduation neared, he heard about

a two-year program at General Motors that would allow him to travel the

world. Two years of being paid to see the sights sounded good, so he

took the job thinking he’d save enough money to buy a small-town

newspaper and pursue his reporting dreams. That’s not quite the way it

worked out.



Today Harris, 53, sits atop GM’s communications machine. With roughly

450 people, GM’s communications apparatus is undoubtedly one of the

largest corporate PR departments on the planet. Given the rapidly

changing nature of the auto industry and GM’s place in it, it’s also one

that faces a massive assortment of external and internal communications

challenges.



It’s a job many would find overwhelming - but not Harris.



’It was a pretty easy choice for me,’ he says of the job he started in

February, leaving his former position as head of PR at Chrysler. ’To be

head of the communications department of the largest company in the

world?



It wasn’t a tough choice.’





Finding a new way to communicate



Harris’ arrival was the culmination of a new PR strategy at the auto

giant. GM senior executives had realized they needed to shake up their

communications function. It had become departmentalized, bureaucratic

and inward looking, like the automaker itself as it fought through the

trying times of the late 1970s and beyond. Foreign competition and

changing consumer tastes had dramatically lessened GM’s dominant role in

the US auto landscape. GM could no longer afford to be arrogant toward

the press or consumers. It had to find a new way to communicate.



But an experiment that brought an outsider in to head up communications

had failed. The clubby auto PR fraternity was not open to outsiders. As

last year drew to a close, GM president G. Richard Wagoner Jr. was

looking for someone else who could handle the job. Among the people he

asked for advice was David Cole, director of the office for the study of

automotive transportation at the University of Michigan, and a widely

respected industry expert. Over dinner, Cole told Wagoner to pursue

Harris. ’I think he’s the best in the business, that’s why I recommended

him,’ Cole recalls.



While he spent 12 years at the start of his career with GM before moving

to American Motors, Harris made his mark in auto PR with Chrysler, which

bought American Motors in the late 1980s. With only a small budget and

staff, he managed to generate excitement for new models while at the

same time getting company execs to become more open and accommodating

for the press.



Edd Snyder, who worked with Harris at American Motors, says, ’He is the

most creative person when it comes to product publicity,’ adding ’he

still loves to engage in conversations with the media.’ Snyder thinks so

much of Harris that he followed him over to GM earlier this year.



But Snyder tempers his praise by acknowledging that Harris has ’got a

huge job’ to accomplish at GM. Adds Victor Pytko, head of Hill &

Knowlton’s Detroit office: ’Time will tell whether or not he becomes

’GM-ized’ or whether or not he can bring some freshness to the PR’

there.



Early signs are that Wagoner’s hiring decision is paying off. GM has

revised how it deals with the auto press, combining product previews

from different divisions to save reporters travel time. He has also

gotten the company to do a better job timing announcements about concept

cars, again showing more awareness of reporters’ deadlines.



He’s also been working to streamline the company’s various PR arms. ’GM

was set up on a very independent unit basis,’ he says. ’My central theme

has been one communications staff.’ Harris constantly reminds his staff

that ’that the competition is outside of here, not inside.’



To promote intra-department communications, Harris has started Friday

morning meetings so he can keep abreast of what’s happening. But he’s no

micro-manager. On the contrary, say Snyder and others, he generally

gives subordinates room to work without interference.



With auto shows and industry events around the world, Harris finds

himself traveling at least one week every month. The frantic pace

doesn’t bother him; besides, if he had wanted to take it easy he could

have stayed at Chrysler, where he was 22 months away from retirement.

But his role there was being cut down because of the DaimlerChrysler

merger and he wasn’t ready to slow down yet.



Somehow he still finds time to redo his kitchen, build a vacation house

in New Mexico and make weekly visits to his mother, who now lives in the

Detroit area.





Down to earth



Such gestures demonstrate the down-to-earth side of Harris’ personality,

a quality mentioned repeatedly when people speak of him. ’Steve has none

of the snootiness that would be inherent in his title,’ says one Detroit

source, which makes it easier for him to bring together disparate

factions in GM’s PR machine: ’Steve can bring calm to a lot of diverse

factions.’



He’ll have to keep doing just that. GM recently riled its dealers by

announcing plans to buy some dealerships. Employee communications is an

ongoing concern for the automaker as well. Harris has been implementing

an existing GM plan to improve staff relations by hiring roughly 100

communications people to work on internal PR. Now he’s trying to develop

the HQ resources to back that new structure up with effective employee

communications materials and messages.



And there’s still the issue of GM’s image with the auto press and the

consumers they reach. Harris must ’continue to loosen up GM, not just at

the executive level but to continue to drive it through the company,’

says Cole.



A tough job, one Harris admits often leaves him feeling either

exhilarated or drained. ’It’s a much more stressful place than Chrysler

was,’ he says.



Still, he remains enthusiastic. ’It’s hard not to get really

enthusiastic when you talk about this industry,’ he says.



That’s the same sentiment people who know and work with him seem to

share about Steve Harris. Personally and professionally, it’s tough not

to admire him.



Steven J. Harris

VP of communications General Motors

1967

Handles regional PR for GM in Cleveland, LA and Indianapolis

1979

Director of product PR American Motors

1998

VP of communications for Chrysler, then SVP of communications at

DaimlerChrysler after merger

1999

VP communications, GM



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