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US:Top Ford political and PR strategist departs

Top Ford political and PR strategist departs

Gottheimer helped create '180 Degrees in 180 Days' campaign to change company's image.

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Ford Motor Co.'s director of strategic communications, who helped develop a political-style campaign to reshape the company's image, is leaving the automaker after 18 months on the job.

Josh Gottheimer, 31, who previously served as a special assistant and speechwriter to President Clinton and other prominent Democrats, is joining Burson Marsteller, the well-known public relations and public affairs firm. An announcement is expected today.

He also is considered a likely candidate to join New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's senior campaign staff if she chooses to run for president in 2008.

Gottheimer, who joined Ford in March 2005, declined to discuss his new job in advance of the announcement.

"If I played any kind of role it was to remind people that Ford is a great American company dedicated to innovation," Gottheimer said Friday.

Part of his role, he said, was to reach out "to people who had written us off but are now taking a second look about how much we do for the country."

Asked how well the strategy worked, Gottheimer said: "These are tough times, but what we're about is starting to break through. The new CEO (Alan Mulally) is part of that equation."

Ford is cutting 44,000 jobs and closing 16 plants in a bid to cut $5 billion in annual costs and restore profitability by 2009.

Gottheimer helped formulate Ford's multimillion-dollar campaign last year that sought to improve the company's image "180 Degrees in 180 Days."

Using research by Democratic pollster and Clinton insider Mark Penn, Ford identified messages that might resonate with consumers, including innovation, safety and American heritage. Penn is now CEO of Burson Marsteller, Gottheimer's new employer.

"What we decided to do was take a fresh look -- in a manner similar to a politician running a campaign in which he was behind," said an internal Ford document obtained by The Detroit News.

Part of the campaign included using then-chairman and CEO Bill Ford in a series of television and print ads touting the company's values and commitment to innovation.

"We realized Bill has a wonderful last name, which is deeply invested in what goes on at Ford Motor Co.," Gottheimer told USA TODAY in April.

"He really resonates with people because his name is on all the cars that go off the line."

The "180 in 180" initiative was at the root of Bill Ford's public pledge in September 2005 that Ford would produce 250,000 hybrid gas-electric vehicles a year by 2010 -- a tenfold increase. In June, Ford abandoned the commitment, citing changing market conditions.

Gottheimer stood by the company's decision to make the pledge. "Energy and fuel efficiency are the future. They're here to stay," he said. "I think we'll get there. You've got to chase after objectives."

Gottheimer, an ambitious Harvard Law School graduate who was a key adviser to Bill Clinton by his early 20s, was an influential and occasionally divisive figure during his short tenure at Ford.

His sharp-elbowed style upset some within Ford. Some also questioned the wisdom of employing the tactics of a political campaign to improve the company's image.

In May, Gottheimer was involved in Ford's effort to help start and fund the Level Field Institute.

Billed as a grass-roots effort, the small advocacy group is run by Jim Doyle, another former Clinton administration official. Level Field launched a publicity campaign highlighting the contributions of Detroit's automakers to the U.S. economy.

"Foreign automakers claim they're investing in the American economy, but the numbers tell a different story," the group said in a recent print ad.

Asked about the domestic auto companies' standing in Washington, Gottheimer said "certainly a lot of issues get ignored," including fair trade and research and development. He also took issue with suggestions that the automakers wanted a government bailout.

"Investing in research and development is not a bailout," he said. The country has to decide "if we want to have auto jobs and not export them all."

He also helped arrange for Bill Clinton to receive a specially outfitted Mercury Mariner Hybrid in September.

Gottheimer said he learned much during his brief tenure at Ford and is optimistic the company will rebound. "I think we've got a good future -- but it's going to take some tough medicine. I'd buy the stock."

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Gottheimer served as a policy adviser and deputy director of speechwriting to U.S. Sen. John Kerry. Before that, he served in the same role for Gen. Wesley Clark during the presidential primary.

Gottheimer helped draft President Clinton's 1999 and 2000 State of the Union addresses and his 2000 address to the Democratic National Convention.

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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