Vines noted that the fire problem hasn't escalated to the same level as the Firestone crisis, and there's time for Hyundai and Kia to keep the situation from damaging the brands and scaring consumers, if they don't "blow it."
Some heavy-duty communications work is under way.
Hyundai said in a statement that it is focused on reinforcing its "efforts to inform customers about the previous two engine recalls we conducted. We are working to communicate what the condition is, what the indications/signs to look for are, and what steps they should take so we can fix the condition at no cost. We have also enhanced our customer service response for these vehicles by adding staff and resources so we can more quickly respond to and address any questions or concerns a customer may have."
A Kia spokesman wrote in an email that the company will restart notification efforts in November "to contact customers whose vehicles have not had the recall conducted and to encourage them to contact their local dealer and schedule the process as soon as possible."
Vines said the brands must be cautious in their communication, noting a troubling sentence in a statement from Kia responding to the Center for Auto Safety's recall push.
The statement said that vehicle fires can result from a number of complex factors, including "inadequate maintenance" and "improper repair." Vines said such language puts blame on customers, adding that brands simply don't win that way.
A Kia spokesman said he understands the criticism there, and explained that the automaker is simply trying to get its arms around a complex situation.
"All we're trying to get across there is that these instances can come from so many different places that are on the consumer side and manufacturer side."
Admitting fault can work in the brands' favor.
Vines recalled when Chrysler got in trouble in 1987 after the discovery that odometers on cars that some executives drove were being tampered with so the vehicles could be sold as new, The New York Times reported. Vines, then with Chrysler, said then-CEO Lee Iacocca apologized and admitted that Chrysler's behavior was "stupid."
"Americans like for you to admit when you screwed up, and they will forgive you," Vines said.