PROFILE: Chrysler's Vines doesn't let crises keep him down

Jason Vines has always been a PR fighter - most notably in the ugly battle between Ford and Firestone. Today, as the Chrysler Group's comms VP, he's infusing that spirit into an entire company.

Jason Vines has always been a PR fighter - most notably in the ugly battle between Ford and Firestone. Today, as the Chrysler Group's comms VP, he's infusing that spirit into an entire company.

As VP of communications for Ford, Jason Vines lived through one of the most daunting PR crises in recent memory - serving as his company's point man during the Ford-Firestone controversy of 2000 and 2001. Firestone tires on Ford Explorers were exploding, causing accidents and deaths. Ford and Firestone got into an ugly public shouting match about who was at fault, while federal regulators and others called for action, eventually forcing Firestone into a massive tire recall. Vines found himself working 15-hour days. His hair began falling out. His smoking increased. His children came to dread the ring of his cell phone. "It was unrelenting," recalls Vines, 44. "Firestone and others were firing these Scud missiles at us each day. We weren't in a fire; we were in a blast furnace." The issue wasn't just a business dilemma. Lives were at stake. Knowing people were being injured and dying meant "you sometimes cried yourself to sleep," Vines remembers. After the crisis abated, Vines and his boss, then-Ford CEO Jac Nasser, were fired. "I'd warned my kids for three months, 'One of these days, I'm going to get fired,'" Vines reflects. Still, being out of the pressure cooker was a plus. "It probably saved my life," Vines says now. Such a traumatic experience might cause some to rethink their careers, but that wasn't Vines' reaction. "In his mind, he's never been down," says former boss and mentor Steve Harris, now a consultant with the McGinn Group in Washington, DC. Rather than leave the auto business, Vines in 2002 went to work for Stratacomm's Detroit office, soon finding himself defending SUVs against the protests of environmentalists. Today, he's VP of communications for the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler, where he's helped that brand capture more positive media and consumer attention than it's had in years. Auto website, for example, rated Chrysler's previews at last month's Detroit Auto Show the best. "Of all the big three, Chrysler is the best-positioned," says Paul Eisenstein, publisher of TheCarConnection. "Right now, Chrysler is the darling." Media monitoring shows that Chrysler's share of voice in auto coverage is up 27%. The tone of reports has turned more positive in the past year, Vines adds. As for himself, he never thought about switching to a go-slow business life. It just wouldn't be his style. Notes Eisenstein, "The man is an adrenaline junky. He thrives on it." To that, Vines says, "I'm not a quiet man." Indeed, Vines had dreams of acting in his early days. He majored in an odd combination of theater and economics at Central University of Iowa. His economist side won out when he took a job with Chrysler in 1983 as an economist/ research analyst in its HR department. That led to an employee communications stint. "It was supposed to be two weeks," Vines recalls, but it turned into three years. After that, Vines got a call from Harris, head of Chrysler PR at the time. Harris needed a PR person for the Eagle brand the company had acquired in a merger with American Motors. "I'd never written a press release in my life," Vines says. But he took to release writing - and PR - quickly. "I love having my hands in the heart of the company," Vines says of his view of PR. Vines became one of Harris' wunderkinds at Chrysler. Nissan hired him away to handle external relations for Nissan North America in 1998. His efforts there led Ford to hire him in 2000. Two years later, Stratacomm called. "He's one of the best. Jason is at the top of his game," says Ron DeFore, a principal with Stratacomm. "He made the transition to agency life beautifully." One of Vines' clients at the firm was an SUV owners group defending the vehicles against environmentalists and others who attacked their gas-guzzling ways. When an opposing group took out ads asking, "What Would Jesus Drive?" Vines fought back by finding a Hispanic SUV owner named Jesus and putting him in a pro-SUV ad. The incident shows how Vines isn't afraid to be creative and use humor to make a point, DeFore says. While some PR people like to say they can think outside the box, "Jason doesn't even know where the box is," DeFore jokes. That creativity is paying off at Chrysler. The automaker had been in the doldrums since shortly after its acquisition by Daimler was announced in 1998. "One of Jason's hallmarks is his ability to work in a troubled environment," says Eisenstein. "He likes these turnaround opportunities." Says Vines of his return to an automaker, "I've got it in my blood, I guess. If you didn't need to have clients, agency work would be great. Clients expect the moon when they have no news. They expect the front page of USA Today when they have a nose-picking device." Chrysler has more than nose-picking devices to offer the press now. Its 300 sedan has gotten positive reviews and consumer interest, and its Hemi engine is an industry icon. Chrysler was the sole US carmaker to record 2004 sales gains. Since his return to Chrysler, Vines has worked to integrate PR and marketing. PR now gets involved at the start of brainstorming on key message points for a new model, rather than waiting to see what marketing comes up with, as had been done in the past, Vines says. PR spending has risen, and PR and marketing are devising more grassroots outreach efforts, he adds. PR is also doing more to support models after initial introduction. "We're going beyond the 'launch it and leave it' stage," Vines says. Vines' efforts this year will focus on a new Dodge Charger and on maintaining the positive press momentum. "I do believe the media gets on your side, especially when you're down, if you're honest with them," Vines notes. He's also honest about creating a team atmosphere. Upon returning to Chrysler, Vines eschewed a corner VP's office, opting for a cubicle in the middle of his PR staff. "I wanted to be part of the team and roll up my sleeves," he says. Those sleeves will need to stay rolled up as he works to keep Chrysler on top. Sounds exactly like where Vines wants to be.

Jason Vines

December 2003-present VP of communications, Chrysler Group

2002 Partner and MD, Stratacomm

2000-2001 VP of communications, Ford

1998-2000 VP of PR and external affairs, Nissan NA

1983-1998 Various positions with Chrysler

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