Steve Harris, the public-relations expert who was a chief architect of Chrysler Corp.'s image rebuilding in the 1990s, is leaving DaimlerChrysler AG to become the top communications executive at General Motors.
Today he becomes GM's vice president of communications, responsible for crafting GM's image and guiding its 450 public relations people worldwide, 270 of them in North America. He fills a job that has been a revolving door in the 1990s.
A decade ago, when Chrysler was product-poor and sales were dropping, Harris led a public-relations team that violated a long-held tenet of automotive public relations. Harris's team showed the press all of Chrysler's future products as a way of stressing that the company had a future.
It worked. When Chrysler's LH cars, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram pickup finally were launched, Chrysler's press coverage was the envy of the industry.
Chrysler put more emphasis on public relations and spent less on advertising.
Harris, 53, was senior vice president of communications at DaimlerChrysler. He is liked and respected by the automotive press for his modest demeanor and competent organization.
Harris, who will report to GM President Rick Wagoner, replaces John Onoda, the former Levi's executive who left GM to join Visa USA last year. Onoda, a former newspaper reporter with a law degree from Indiana University, had pledged to be more than a mouthpiece who simply passed along messages from top GM executives.
And since he reported directly to GM Vice Chairman Harry Pearce, he expected to have access to GM's top brass. But Onoda was largely invisible to the media and had little apparent impact on GM's image.
Within GM, the most likely candidate for the post had been Bill O'Neill, who was named executive director of North American communications in 1997. At the time, he was given a seat on the policy board of GM's North American Operations, giving him access to top executives.
Wagoner is known to be dissatisfied with the way GM is portrayed in much of the press.
Among Harris' challenges: help generate excitement for GM's new generation of vehicles as the company tries to reverse its long string of market-share losses in America.
Many GM communications people privately express frustration at Chairman Jack Smith's reluctance to communicate externally. That is a big change from Chrysler, where top executives Lee Iacocca, Robert Lutz and Robert Eaton have spread the company gospel enthusiastically.
Harris' move to GM had been rumored for weeks. Harris said GM approached him about the position several months ago.
'I started at GM and was there close to 13 years, so it is fun and kind of a dream come true to go back there and head communications,' Harris said.
Harris was appointed vice president of communications at Chrysler Corp. on Jan. 1, 1998. After Chrysler and Daimler-Benz AG merged on Nov. 17, Harris got North America but was outranked by Christoph Walther at DaimlerChrysler AG in Stuttgart.
THIRD TO LEAVE
Harris becomes the third senior executive to leave DaimlerChrysler since the merger was announced last May.
Dennis Pawley, who was head of manufacturing, retired in January to become a consultant. Pawley said his retirement had nothing to do with the merger. Rex Franson, president of Chrysler Financial Corp., resigned Jan. 15.
Harris said it was premature to talk about changes at GM. He said he knows about 25 percent of the GM communications staff.
He came to Chrysler in 1987 with Chrysler's purchase of American Motors Corp. At AMC, Harris had been director of product public relations since 1979.
Harris joined GM right out of the University of Southern California, where he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism. He was a lecturer for GM's Previews of Progress educational program, talking to junior and senior high school students in the area. He later became supervisor of that program.
At GM, Harris also held regional public relations posts in Cleveland, Los Angeles and Indianapolis. He left GM in 1977 for AMC.
Harris was the Automotive News' All Star for automotive public relations in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997.