Monday, December 17, 2007

Nardelli downsizes Chrysler PR

The Vines style: Jason Vines stands in for a former boss, the mustachioed Dieter Zetsche, during a 2005 lighting check for photographers.
Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS

DETROIT — The resignation of Jason Vines, Chrysler LLC's outspoken public affairs and communications chief, means the automaker will take a quieter, more tight-lipped approach to telling its story.

After Vines' resignation last week, Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli downgraded public relations by putting it under the authority of Nancy Rae, senior vice president of human resources.

Vines' position as vice president of communications has been eliminated.

Since Vines joined Chrysler in 2003, he reported directly to three CEOs: Dieter Zetsche, Tom LaSorda and Nardelli.

Under the new structure, the four communications department heads who reported to Vines will report instead to Rae. None will be a vice president, and none will run communications.

The four are:

1. Rick Deneau, director of product communications

2. Lori McTavish, director of global market communications

3. David Barnas, senior manager of corporate and internal communications

4. Shawn Morgan, manager of North American sales and marketing.

In an unrelated development, Mike Aberlich, Chrysler director of corporate and internal communications, said he will retire this month.

PR downgrade
Chrysler LLC communications changes its PR department.
-- Jason Vines resigns as vice president of communications.
-- Vines' position is eliminated.
-- The communications department no longer will report directly to Chrysler's CEO.
-- Nancy Rae, senior vice president of human resources, takes charge of communications.
-- 4 communications department heads will now report to Rae.

Outside agency

Nardelli has brought in Robert Marston and Associates Inc., a New York public relations firm, to help with corporate communications. Nardelli worked with the agency when he was chairman of Home Depot Inc.

Vines declined to comment on reports that he clashed with Nardelli over the approach to communications.

Vines, a former stand-up comedian, probably was the industry's most visible, aggressive and flamboyant public relations official.

If he felt a journalist had wronged Chrysler, Vines would call the journalist. He also aired his views on, the Chrysler media blog he created.

Ken Levy, who preceded Vines as vice president of public relations, said he is concerned about Chrysler's direction under the ownership of private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management.

Levy, now a communications consultant, praised Rae as an excellent human resources executive. But he pointed out that human resources is concerned with internal communication to employees, not external communication.

Seat at the table

In a high-profile consumer products company such as Chrysler, PR needs to have a seat at the table in top-level deliberations, he said.

"They're not traded publicly, but they are public in that they need to interact with the public, and they need to promote their vehicles in a similar way other products are promoted to the media," Levy said.

"The media interest is very intense. You need to be interacting with the media because that's your way of connecting your message with your customers."

Vines' resignation takes effect today, Dec. 17, but he agreed to remain through the month to assist in the transition.

Said Vines in a prepared statement: "This was a tough decision, considering the many talented, longtime friends I have throughout the company. I will continue to root for them."

Said Nardelli: "Jason has served Chrysler well, and we are very grateful for his many contributions over the years."

Stint at Ford

Vines, a native of Pella, Iowa, began his career at Chrysler in 1983 as an economics researcher in the labor relations department. He left Chrysler in 1998 to become vice president of communications for Nissan North America.

In 1998, then Ford Motor Co. CEO Jacques Nasser hired Vines as vice president of communications.

Vines, who was at the helm of PR during the Ford Explorer rollover crisis, left Ford after Nasser was fired. He returned to Chrysler in 2003 to work for then CEO Zetsche.

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