Talent drain causes auto industry concerns

The industry's comms teams now face shrinking staffs among their many other economic hurdles

While the auto industry tries to right itself financially, it has also been bleeding senior communications talent like a leaky gasket. Most recently, Tony Cervone stepped down from his post as VP of global strategy and operations at General Motors to join UAL Corp., the holding company for United Airlines. This February, Simon Sproule decamped from Nissan Motors, where he was corporate VP of global communications, to join Microsoft. Both Sproule and Cervone were well-regarded auto industry lifers who took new opportunities in new industries.

These moves will likely leave a noticeable hole in the communications departments of these once storied blue chip companies.

Both Cervone and Sproule are transitioning to their new roles and could not immediately be reached for comment.

Steve Harris, VP of global communications at GM, says that as yet, there are no plans to replace Cervone. Instead, he has assumed the additional responsibilities. He adds that GM “probably won't replace the position exactly as is” when the search for Cervone's replacement does begin.

Additionally, Chrysler eliminated its CMO position after Deborah Wahl Meyer exited the post in December 2008.

“The company has announced pretty aggressive global reductions, and communications will play a fair share,” he continues. “We hate to lose talented people, but it's a sign that we have talented people.”

In the meantime, he said that the communications priorities for GM will include internal communications, financial and corporate communications, and social media initiatives.

“You have to focus on the high priorities,” Harris says. “You have to do that with your own personal budget; you have to do the same with your work. Hopefully over time, when things come back in the global economy and the global industry, we'll add people as necessary.”

In a twist of irony, journalists, whom PR pros have complained of late are becoming few and far between, say they too are noticing the shrunken ranks.

“We're seeing less PR people to work with, fewer pitches, but there's less product coming out,” says Ray Wert, editor-in-chief at auto blog Jalopnik. “We're getting a lot less meaty pitches. It's not only because of the personnel issue, but [also] because they're not sure what the message should be.”

He notes that some smaller brands, like Hyundai, are swooping in to pick up the pace. “They've built relationships with sites like ours,” he says. Wert also cites “niche brands” and “enthusiast-centric brands,” such as the racers from Lotus, as those that will reap PR benefits as talent moves from the traditional “old-line automakers.” PR firms might also benefit.

“This is prime time to pick from a vulnerable industry,” says Joseph Molina, president of JMPR, which works with Bentley and other automakers.

Darryl Siry, the former CMO of electric carmaker Tesla Motors, joined Peppercom as a senior analyst in its clean tech practice in February. He says he left Tesla late last year for reasons unrelated to the economy, but he agrees that there are “a lot of opportunities for others to poach talent as the industry continues to struggle.”

“As communicators, one of the nice things is we have a fairly transportable skill set,” he adds.

For the moment, the communications function for the auto industry is in “perpetual crisis communications,” Siry says, but they will have to learn to adapt.

“Brand name for companies in the future is going to be more about communications and less about mass media,” Siry says. “Future faith is not going to be based on commercials. If there's ever a time for communications to take an even stronger role in the strategic branding of auto companies, it's now.”

Molina notes that despite the continual loop of negative coverage for the industry, there will be “light at the end of the tunnel... we just can't see it... People need to realize that we're not going to be walking to work.”

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