GM banking on Harris to restore image

Back as PR chief, Steve Harris aims to get GM's practices on the same page as he tells its stories

Back as PR chief, Steve Harris aims to get GM's practices on the same page as he tells its stories

Steve Harris, back at General Motors as PR chief following a two-year turn with marketing firm ClearBlue, wants to buff the GM nameplate. But that won't be easy, as GM left last year's automotive battlefield in tatters. The press has not been kind, highlighting the company's revenue and market-share losses, and playing badminton with the bankruptcy question and whether GM's biggest individual investor, Kirk Kerkorian, and his proxy, Jerry York, are saviors or vultures.

"I think it's a tougher job to credibly communicate a structural adjustment toward recovery if the press is anticipating more bad news," says Jim Sanfilippo, consultant with AMCI, Detroit, an event-marketing firm and consultancy to the automotive business that has worked with GM. "They have a credible, potent story to tell. The question becomes: How do you convince these guys that [GM] has done the right thing?"

"I want to find ways GM can do a better job of storytelling," says Harris, who replaces Tom Kowaleski, president of GM global communications, who will step down March 1. "I want to find the great stories at GM," he notes, adding that those stories are coming from product development, market successes, and strong quality and durability reviews from the likes of J.D. Power & Associates.

He also wants to make the PR process more efficient by making the various practices within GM less "siloed," a challenge in such a notoriously bureaucratic company. "The key is integrating communications with sales, marketing, and public policy, with the people generating the major messages," he says. He adds that the company may have paid lip service to the anti-silo credo in the past, "but we never worked to make sure we are all on the same page, using the resources we have in the most efficient manner."

Paul Eisenstein, TheCarConnection.com's publisher and frequent guest on NPR's Weekend Edition and other programs, says that streamlining communications at GM is a work in progress that Harris knows well. "I will say that during the period that Steve was there the first time around, he did a good job of beginning to break through some of the silos in the organization," Eisenstein says. "[Kowaleski] continued that process."

Among the stories Harris will likely want to tell: the 19 new models due over the next two years, many of them ground-up redesigns, such as Saturn Sky, Aura, and Vue Hybrid, and a raft of new SUVs, such as the recently launched Chevy Tahoe. Another story the company will want to reinforce on Wall Street is its booming business in China.

David Kiley, marketing editor at BusinessWeek and also a former USA Today Detroit bureau chief who is now headed back to Detroit as a senior correspondent for the business weekly, says a bonus for Harris will be his relationships with CEO Rick Wagoner and North American marketing VP Mark LaNeve. Wagoner, who approached Harris in mid-January, originally tapped Harris to fix PR at GM in the late 1990s as Wagoner was about to take the reins from former chairman and CEO Jack Smith.

"As a former PR chief myself, I know that when the CEO feels he's in a foxhole with mortar shells falling around him, he wants the person he feels most comfortable with helping him through it," says Kiley, who has held senior PR posts at ad agencies Lowe & Partners/SMS and Doner. "As good a PR man as I think Tom is, it's clear Wagoner has a higher degree of confidence and comfort with Harris."

And, he points out, Harris is also close to LaNeve, who came to GM in spring 2001, helped shine the Cadillac nameplate, and rocketed to North American marketing chief last year.

"LaNeve knows Harris very well, and they get along, so if there is coordination to be done or PR input [to be offered], there will be no communication barriers that I know of," Kiley says.

Sanfilippo notes that LaNeve has been making changes similar to those Harris seeks to make. "LaNeve is realigning divisional marketing, organization, and agencies," he says, "and he's relegating messaging to the appropriate places [division to division, corporate to corporate]."

Sanfilippo adds that if GM is in the mood to wean itself from incentives, develop better divisional branding, and make sensible use of the GM corporate brand in paid media, "then the stage is set for Steve to re-engineer similarly in [media outreach and PR]."

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