Communication of Japan’s largest automakers in the hands of the Americans

Diversity at Pepsi. Julie Hamp, 3rd from left

Diversity at Pepsi. Julie Hamp, 3rd from left

“Isn’t it interesting that communications of the two largest Japanese automakers are now headed by two Americans?” That was Jeff Kuhlman, on Skype in a Starbucks in London Heathrow, on his way to New York. PR man he is, Jeff spoke about himself, comms chief of Nissan, and about Julie Hamp, now comms chief of Toyota. I wrote about the big management changes at Toyota, but I was focused on someone who forged crankshafts instead of relationships. Dense me did not make the global connection. There is an even more interesting part of the story: The two American comms chiefs of the two big Japanese carmakers are long-term pals. They worked together at America’s largest automaker.

Boss  in front, Jeff pulling the strings

Boss in front, Jeff pulling the strings


Julie Hamp headed GM’s marketing communications for North America at the same time as Kuhlman was comms-chief of Cadillac. Jeff took Julie’s job when she moved to running GM comms for foreign lands, and he subsequently followed her foreign footsteps by going to Audi. Both will be working in close vicinity soon. Julie Hamp is moving to Tokyo, I am told. Jeff has been working next door in Yokohama since leaving Audi in 2011.

For a long time, global carmakers have followed the “all business is local” mantra in their communications, but now more and more realize that most communication is global. Those who don’t, are ignoring facts at their own peril. Nearly all communication is on-line these days. A reporter in Chicago files a story, and five minutes later, it is read by a customer in Chengdu, China. A Reuters report typed in Detroit is polished by an editor in Singapore. Once it hits the wire, the story is everywhere in an instant. A shitstorm on Twitter or Facebook is a global one. Sloppily planned or executed CI turns into a Le Grande Confusion on the global stage.  Informed customers in China or South America no longer accept the last generation hand-me-down models from Europe or Detroit, the flow of international communication has already changed the making of cars. Now, the making of communication follows, and it’s about time.

Julie has a BS in communications, and as a native of Queens’ she won’t take any. That Julie Hamp is a woman got all the headlines. What is more earthshaking is that Toyota’s communication is being managed by a non-Japanese. Export-oriented as they are, Japanese carmakers have long acted globally. Their communication departments however have long been insular. Top management at Toyota is still largely paper-based, and a PR-chief’s job is considered done for the day if the story is in the Nikkei. This won’t be so under Hamp. After leaving GM, Hamp worked as communication chief of Pepsi, a truly globally thinking, globally communicating, and globally acting company. @DannyFChen, Toyota’s reluctant tweet-machine, suddenly should have an enthusiastic sponsor.

In that regard, Nissan is way ahead of Toyota. Nissan’s HQ in Yokohama can be mistaken for the United Nations. Led by French-Lebanese-Brazilian Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s key positions are filled by managers from around the world, and “diversity” is not a hollow phrase, it’s a fact of daily life and work. I bet, Jeff and Julie will compare a few notes.

P.S.: The plot gains weight: Brian Akre is yet another GM alumn who found sanctuary abroad. The Renault-Nissan Alliance hired Akre in 2013 as director of executive communications.  In 2006, when GM declined a merger with Renault-Nissan (which would have avoided bankruptcy and would have kept GM #1 globally) Akre was a GM spokesman. In that capacity, he had to say that a tie-up with Renault-Nissan  “didn’t seem like a balanced deal for GM.” Now, he writes Ghosn’s speeches. At GM, Akre worked  with Julie Hamp and Jeff Kuhlman as head of executive communications. Ever the gifted wordsmith and schmoozer, Akre says: “We are all graduates of the Steve Harris School of Communications!”