Ideas - Client Spotlight

How Former FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne Won the Hearts of Journalists by Breaking Conventional PR Rules

Sergio Marchionne at a Press Scrum in January 2017Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne was not one to be controlled. He couldn’t be scripted. He said what was on his mind. And in the process, he frequently forced his talented but understaffed public relations team to scramble.

With degrees in philosophy, law and accounting, Marchionne made seemingly definitive statements punctuated with salty language, and – I am convinced – selectively displayed fake outrage that was designed to throw reporters and Wall Street analysts off guard.

Along the way, Marchionne regularly broke most of the conventional public relations rules. He went off-script on almost every earnings call, press conference and media scrum. Hell, much of the time he didn’t even have a script.

Over the course of seven years of covering Marchionne for the Detroit Free Press and USA Today, I had a front-row seat as he criticized U.S. regulators, European regulators, other automotive CEOs, the Trump administration, Wall Street analysts and, of course, the media.

And yet, in the wake of his tragic death Wednesday, there has been an outpouring of grief and nostalgic tales from all corners of the industry about the man who famously wore black sweaters to nearly every event, including to meet the president at the White House.
The praise has come from, among others:

  • GM CEO Mary Barra: Barra, who was subjected to questions for several months about what most viewed as a ludicrous merger offer from Marchionne said, in a tweet: “Sergio created a remarkable legacy in the automotive industry.”
  • President Donald Trump: Marchionne repeatedly said the auto industry needs “clarity” on NAFTA negotiations and trade policy. Still, Trump said, in a tweet: “Sergio Marchionne, who passed away today, was one of the most brilliant & successful car executives since the days of the legendary Henry Ford.”
  • Sanford Bernstein analyst Max Warburton, who frequently sparred with Marchionne on earnings calls, said in an analyst note: “Sergio was incredibly generous to investors and analysts, including this one. Critics might argue that he spent too much time with the financial community and this was driven by self-interest, given his huge equity holdings. But this is far too cynical – Marchionne’s approach gave FCA credibility, ensured access to capital on more favorable terms, funded growth and allowed him to safeguard the jobs of 236,000 people. Sergio, we salute you and we thank you.”
  • Automotive News reporter Larry Vellequette, whose aggressive reporting about monthly sales reports with potentially inflated numbers sparked Marchionne’s wrath and led to the publication being barred from Fiat Chrysler events, said in a tweet: “For a long time, I had a good working relationship with him – exchanged texts, spoke during interviews, scrums, etc. Know this: He was the smartest man I’ve ever met, bar none, and the best interview. I’ll miss him.”

Covering Marchionne as a reporter was both exhilarating and exhausting. Holidays were not a news free zone.

“I was in a remote village in Italy’s Dolomite mountains on Jan. 1, 2014, when Sergio Marchionne wrecked my vacation yet again,” Bloomberg beat reporter Tommaso Ebhardt said in a story where he reflected fondly on a decade spent doggedly tracking Marchionne around the globe.

Marchionne had picked New Year’s Day to announce the completion of Fiat’s acquisition of all the outstanding shares of Chrysler previously held by the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust. It was the culmination of Marchionne’s five-year quest to fully combine Fiat and Chrysler into a global automaker.
So how did this gruff, demanding, executive earn such wide-ranging praise? In a word, it was his authenticity. His comments weren’t canned, practiced media messages.

Reporters knew that at any moment Marchionne might say something newsworthy or jaw-dropping or both. It wasn’t uncommon to return from a Marchionne press conference with three or four stories worthy of major headlines.

To be sure, Marchionne had an uncanny ability to leave himself wiggle room – even with statements that sounded definitive. Few executives have Marchionne’s masterful language and media skills to make provocative statements and stay out of real trouble.

“Deciphering Marchionne quotes are like looking at a Rorschach test,” an exasperated reporter once exclaimed on deadline in a media room after a Marchionne press conference.

Still, there is a lesson here for public relations professionals and executives who must talk to the media. It’s as simple as this: Honesty and transparency sells. If executives speak openly and with candor, their messages will resonate, and they will earn credibility with journalists.

It’s not an easy or safe path. FCA’s public relations department was often forced to huddle over spotty recordings of press conferences and scrums right along with reporters as they attempted to decipher what Marchionne said, transcribe it, and then answer media questions on the fly.

But the reward is that journalists will respect your executive and come to view them as reliable newsmakers and will therefore be willing to set aside time to talk to them. That means the core messages your company and your CEO want to get out have a better chance of being reported.

A poignant example of this occurred on Sept. 14, 2012, at Hart Plaza in Detroit when Marchionne spoke as the honorary chairman of the United Way of Southeastern Michigan.

It was colder than expected, raining hard and still mostly dark at about 7 a.m. Instead of asking about the United Way, I asked about public demands made by the Canadian Auto Workers three days before a national contract was set to expire.

Marchionne bellowed something like: “I am certainly NOT going to negotiate with the CAW through the media” before unleashing an extended rant about the CAW’s irresponsible demands.

“The facts are the facts and I think ignoring them and sweeping them under the carpet is not going to make anyone’s life any better,” he said that day of the CAW.
The result? My story ran on page 1 in the Detroit Free Press and his comments were picked up across Canada.

Was Marchionne actually mad at me for asking that question? I doubt it. Marchionne knew that by breaking the standard public relations rule that you don’t talk about labor talks in public, his message about worker responsibility would reach union members across Canada and would put pressure on union negotiators at the bargaining table.

And like most things he did, it worked.

Brent Snavely is a director in Lambert’s automotive practice.