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
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
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
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’
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
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
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,’
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
Handles regional PR for GM in Cleveland, LA and Indianapolis
Director of product PR American Motors
VP of communications for Chrysler, then SVP of communications at
DaimlerChrysler after merger
VP communications, GM