PROFILE: Nissan's Sproule steers media in the right direction

'No comment' is not in Simon Sproule's vocabulary, but words like 'openness' and 'trust' are. John N. Frank finds that such traits have earned Nissan NA's corporate comms VP widespread admiration.

'No comment' is not in Simon Sproule's vocabulary, but words like 'openness' and 'trust' are. John N. Frank finds that such traits have earned Nissan NA's corporate comms VP widespread admiration.

Simon Sproule didn't have career plans after finishing college. After all, what does a young British gentleman with a geography degree do? "I could tell you about glaciers and I was good with maps," he jokes. What Sproule had was a love for cars. His grandfather worked for a car dealer and Sproule grew up devouring auto magazines. So he decided to do something auto-related - Sproule became a salesman in a London Ford dealership. That 1990 decision was the start of a journey that has led Sproule to Ford, Jaguar, and now to his position as VP of corporate communications with Nissan North America in Gardena, CA. And his geography degree came in handy, as Sproule has moved from his native UK to Detroit, New Jersey, and California. In 1992, after selling cars for about 18 months, Sproule became a researcher for a British firm that handled TV production for Ford's internal TV station in Europe. In 1994, he moved into Ford's British press office, and by 1996 was managing public affairs for Ford of Britain. Two years later, he moved to Detroit to handle Ford truck PR. That job entailed strategic planning, and Sproule confesses that he missed daily media interaction. Unlike some PR pros who see the press as adversarial, Sproule grew up idolizing auto writers, and loved interacting with them. So when the chance came to work for Ford-owned Jaguar in New Jersey, he pounced. "If you're into cars, Jaguar is one of those great names," he says. Without formal PR training, Sproule has learned the profession through on-the-job experience. Fellow PR pros and journalists say he's learned well. "Simon has always impressed me," says Paul Dean, editor-at-large and a former publisher of the Robb Report, a magazine for the well-heeled. "He's personable, knowledgeable, and humorous in his dealing with the media." Journalists also praise Sproule for his consistently straightforward style. "Every so often you find [a PR pro] who goes that extra mile to strike a balance between the media and his corporate master. Simon realizes that trust is essential," says Paul Eisenstein, publisher of TheCarConnection.com and a longtime Detroit auto writer. "I hate 'no comment," Sproule says. "I always take the call and have the first conversation. The one thing I value with the media above all else is trust." Indeed, Sproule was drawn to Nissan because of the openness he saw from senior management. In fact, the company is so open that it allows casual dress around the office, something friends joke has challenged Sproule. Dean, himself a Brit, says it's hard to see the nattily attired Sproule working anywhere but Jaguar, where he headed PR - along with overseeing the function for Land Rover and Aston-Martin - before joining Nissan. "Simon was Mr. Jaguar," recalls Dean. "He sounded and dressed the part, with lovely two-toned shirts and blazers - very British." Al Vinikour, head of Vinikour Communications, a Detroit-area firm, recalls seeing Sproule wearing a tie and blazer in 95-degree heat during a PR event. "He doesn't sweat. He's one of the coolest guys I've ever seen," Vinikour says. Sproule's management style is also cool. Rather than micromanage, he gives direction and lets his subordinates do their jobs. Jason Vines, a former boss when both worked for Ford and now head of Stratacomm's Detroit office, says, "He knows the business and he loves [cars]. He seems to be a great team builder." Sproule says his leadership style has evolved from how he likes to be managed. "I've been very lucky in working for people who gave me freedom to do my job," he recalls. "I'm a great believer that people need to own projects." Sproule's management talents will be put to the test at Nissan, which he joined in May. The brand is in the midst of a revival. A recent BusinessWeek worldwide brand survey put Nissan in the top 100 brands for the first time, ranking it 89th. The publication noted the company's reputation hasn't caught up with "crowd-pleasing new models." Sproule's mission will be to keep that momentum going and to get journalists to pay attention to a slew of new Nissan products at a time when new models are flooding the market. "Nissan has undergone this tremendous turnaround, and it's been a product-led revival," explains Sproule. But auto writers still don't expect Nissan to come out with exciting offerings. "That's got to change," he adds. He sees his primary mission as "raising brand awareness. More importantly, it's raising brand understanding." Another big challenge for Sproule is elevating the image of Nissan's luxury Infiniti nameplate. "Infiniti is still almost a non-entity when the media talks about luxury brands," says Vines, himself a former head of Nissan North America's PR department. To which Sproule responds, "We have to decide what Infiniti is and what it stands for." He hopes to do that with media outlets beyond the auto press, reasoning that a luxury car needs to target titles that write for upscale audiences. "It's beholden on us to know our customers," he says. "It's back to selling cars." In that sense, Sproule's international PR odyssey hasn't carried him far from his first job in the Ford dealership, getting consumers to buy his cars. As for what's ahead, Sproule says he's no more into long-term career planning now than he was when he finished school. "I've had one hell of a ride in my career so far," he says, "and I'm looking forward to a hell of a ride ahead." Only these days, rather than taking that ride in a Jaguar, Sproule is tooling along Southern California roads in an Infiniti FX45 SUV. And for the time being, he's mostly leaving his pinstriped suits in the closet. ----- Simon Sproule May 2003-present Corporate comms VP, Nissan N. America 2001-2003 VP of comms, Aston Martin Jaguar Land Rover North America 2000-2001 VP of comms, Jaguar North America 1998-2000 Comms mgr., Ford, truck vehicle center 1996-1998 Corporate affairs mgr., Ford of Britain 1992-1994 Program research/product manager Ford of Europe internal comms network 1990-1992 Auto salesman at a London dealership

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