Auto public relations wiz takes on the Bible

October 19, 2009
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When it became apparent that remodeled automaker Chrysler had chosen an alternate route under the control of private equity firm Cerberus, public relations chief Jason Vines left the company for the road less traveled.

After a couple of detours, he found an exit ramp at Christian publisher Zondervan in Grand Rapids.

“It came completely out of the blue,” Vines said.

He had parted ways with Chrysler, as well as Compuware, and had taken on a staff marketing role at a nonprofit where he’d been a board member.

On the way to lobby for the nonprofit, Forgotten Harvest, at the Detroit Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual policy conference on Mackinac Island, Vines took a cell phone call from an old friend: Steve Sammons, now executive vice president of consumer engagement for Zondervan. The two had worked together at Nissan North America.

Sammons was looking for someone with international public relations experience to handle some upcoming projects, and asked Vines for suggestions.

“We started talking about some of the stuff that’s coming up. I go, ‘How about if I do it?’  He goes, ‘I was hoping I’d get that answer.’”

Vines joined the company in mid-summer and jumped into several big projects.

“We’re owned by HarperCollins, which, in turn, is owned by NewsCorp. So I felt good about that — that solid type of corporate foundation,” he added.

Zondervan was established in 1931 in a Grandville farmhouse by Pat and Bernie Zondervan, nephews of another local religious publisher, William Eerdmans. It was purchased by HarperCollins Publishing in 1988; as Harper & Row in 1987, HarperCollins was acquired by NewsCorp. That chain of ownership connects Zondervan to an international news, television and entertainment conglomerate that includes Fox News, 20th Century Fox, Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and other newspapers in Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom, all lead by Rupert Murdoch.

Among the projects on Vines’ plate: Zondervan plans to release a new translation of the New International Version Bible in 2011. The NIV, a Protestant version popular with evangelicals, has sold 215 million copies worldwide since Zondervan released it in 1978; it is among the top 10 best-selling modern Bibles. Vines said Zondervan was braced to use public relations to manage the inevitable theological quibbles with the edition. The NIV has seen just one minor update in 31 years.

“We knew there had been conflicts in the past within the evangelical community and that had to be managed,” Vines said. “And I think if you look at most of the coverage — and it’s been incredible, the amount of it — it’s been fair and balanced. We feel pretty good about that.”

Also in 2011, Zondervan is planning to release a 32-week study curriculum to accompany a narrative treatment of the NIV Bible.

Vines said the curriculum for “The Story: The Whole-Church Experience” includes prepared sermons and presentations in a variety of mediums tailored by age group. Pioneered at the mega-church Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, the beta version is underway at three churches in Mexico and eight in the U.S., including Resurrection Life Church in Grandville.

“One of the byproducts we’ve seen already is that church attendance goes up,” Vines said. “One of the beta churches, their attendance is up 45 percent already. So on that roll-out, I’m working with a team as the leader of that project.”

In addition, Vines said he’ll be involved in public relations as publishers worldwide celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011. Zondervan also plans a re-packaging of “The Bible Experience,” a 70-hour audio Bible read by dozens of black celebrities. And Zondervan is about to launch “The Hope You Need,” a new book by Rick Warren, author of the blockbuster “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

“I think you’re going to see us being focused more, going forward, on these great authors,” Vines added. “So you know when you buy a Zondervan book, when you see it at the bottom, you know that’s a great author.”

Vines’ journey started in his hometown of Pella, Iowa, which he described as “little Grand Rapids — all Dutch, all Christian Reformed and Reformed Church of America, except me and the First Baptist Church. When I was there, it was like 6,000 people and 17 churches. ... We have a Tulip Time every year. Holland is our sister city, and Hope (College) and my college, Central College, are sister colleges, both Reformed Church of America.”

Vines grew up as the third of four siblings. His late father, Cecil, was a minor-league professional baseball player who became a feed sales manager. His mother, Peggy, still lives in Pella.

Vines double-majored in economics and theater at Central College. He followed that up with a master’s in industrial relations at Michigan State University.

“It was the last day of the term and I had run out of money. I was going to go back to Iowa,” Vines recalled. “I forgot my little blue test book, so I went up to my adviser to steal one from him. And he goes, ‘Hey, just got a call from Chrysler. They need somebody.’”

Vines took his exam and, without even a résumé, interviewed at Chrysler that same day. “I leave at 5 o’clock, drive to Iowa…and get a call the next morning from that guy. He goes, ‘The job is yours.’ I got offered $31,000 in 1983. That was a lot of money.

“I packed my things up, kissed my mom good-bye and got right back in the car. … On Monday, I was at the bargaining table for the opening of the negotiations. And when you’re in labor and industrial relations, that’s the big time, even though, to be honest, I was just taking notes.”

He finished his master’s degree by commuting between his job at Chrysler and MSU.

He became a labor economist at the automaker, then was tabbed to help set up an employee communications department. That led to marketing and public relations.

“Then I went to Washington, D.C., on loan from Chrysler to the trade group that represented the Big Three — the AAMA, the American Automobile Manufacturers Association,” Vines said. “We were trying to re-do the image of the auto industry because, by the early 90s, it was kind of tattered. They fired the head of that organization and hired the former secretary of transportation, Andrew Card.”

Transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush, Card went on to become chief of staff for President George W. Bush. “He became one of my best friends,” Vines said. “We had so much fun. We did trade missions to Japan and Korea. He’s the one that whispered in Bush’s ear when 9-11 happened.”

In 1998, after Vines had returned to Chrysler, Nissan recruited him for North American public relations.

“They were bankrupt, but we did a good job of recreating their image. They became kind of the darlings. And then Ford came after me, and Jacques Nasser, who was the CEO, hired me.”

At Ford, Vines staff was 400 people. “The week after I started as the head of PR for Ford Motor Co., the Firestone tire crisis started. That’s all I did for two years: tires, congressional hearings...Sixty Minutes. I mean, you talk about baptism by fire.”

Nasser — and Vines — were dismissed from Ford in 2001.

Vines spent two years “in the agency world, then DaimlerChrysler came calling.” He spent four years as the public relations chief while Chrysler was an ill-fated German-American hybrid.

“I had a great four years with ‘Dr. Z,’ Dieter Zetsche. We had a wonderful time, launched the Chrysler 300 and other vehicles.”

Then in 2007, private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management bought Chrysler.

“The fun was over,” Vines lamented. “I walked away from a lot of money, and I didn’t care. It just wasn’t worth it, being unhappy.”

Vines said he quit; news reports at the time said he was fired after the communications department was brought under control of the human resources department instead of operating as a direct report.

“They had a management philosophy that didn’t believe in PR, didn’t believe in communicating,” Vines said. “When Chrysler was sold to private equity, they kept touting how they didn’t have to worry about the numbers any more, didn’t have to be beholden to the media and Wall Street because they’re private now.

“Well, they shut down the communication. Even though you’re private, you’re such a big public company, in the eyes of the customer. So I don’t think you can hide behind that. You may not have to show your earnings, but still, people are counting on you…They’re all gone, thank goodness, all the people who believed that — almost too late.”

Afterwards, Vines spent 11 months at Compuware. “To be honest, after 11 months I wasn’t into it. I was starting to lobby for the Big Three again on my own, with suppliers and so forth during all those hearings, those ugly hearings where they basically said all of our guys are stupid. That was just a shame to watch that.”

Those who know Vines as the outspoken and gregarious spokesman for the auto industry might not be surprised to learn that he put his theater major to good use as a stand-up comic. During college, he put together a comedy act and joined the comedy club circuit. He opened for actors Tim Allen and Bob Saget, and provided voices for Detroit radio icon Dick Purtan. “That’s key to stand-up, if they think you’re funny before you start, you’ve already gotten over a huge hurdle,” Vines said.

He appeared at the Comedy Club in Los Angeles, but found himself quickly overshadowed by the likes of Robin Williams. He still is involved in an annual live parody show in Detroit that is similar to The Dunkers in Grand Rapids.

Vines commutes weekly from his home in the Detroit suburb of Franklin, where his wife, Betsy, stays with their daughter, Lane, a high-school senior. He lives in an Ada condo during the week, but said the family has been house-hunting.

“It’s a different air around here,” Vines said of Grand Rapids. “The person in the convenience store says thank you. I’ve found just an incredible friendliness in this part of the state.”

Vines said he has taken a certain amount of ribbing about his new job. But he readily defends his co-workers.

“I found the people I’m working with a breath of fresh air,” he said. “I did not find a bunch of holier-than-thou folks throwing Christianity in your face. I found a bunch of good people who are genuinely nice.”

Marketing Bibles has a different cache than schilling vehicles, he said.

“You’re talking about the most popular book that’s changed lives. That’s kind of heavy stuff. … Our authors influence people and turn their lives around. It’s pretty cool stuff.

“The good news is, the Bible cannot leak oil. There’s very few recalls.”

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