Regardless of our profession, we’ve all witnessed some tragic and unforgettable media moments in the past year – like U.S. Airways’ Twitter epic fail or every time past Clippers owner Donald Sterling opened (and continues to open) his mouth in a public setting – that force us to ask a resounding question:
Who in the world is responsible for their PR?
Now, with General Motors’ recent recall of 3.36 million cars with faulty ignition switches last Monday – a defect that is very similar to the one responsible for thirteen deaths in a 2.6 million-vehicle recall by GM in little over a year ago – we may have another candidate for a PR review: General Motors’ very own CEO, Mary Barra.
Appearing before Congress in 2013, after she first heard of the potentially-fatal ignition defect that was impacting power steering, power brakes and airbags of Chevrolet Cobalts across the nation, Barra earned the support of consumers everywhere for appearing to be an executive and leader who was caring, empathetic and genuinely apologetic for the brand’s responsibility in the crisis. When she spoke at a press conference before the U.S. House for a second time last week, however, we saw a very different woman come to the podium. Barra came across as cold and presented answers that were lacking any real acceptance or concern for the families affected. The worst part? She announced the results of GM’s internal investigation without actually revealing the results. She refused to share the official internal investigation report with the public (though it was later released by federal authorities), failed to explain any plans to curb the issue beyond letting go of fifteen employees, announced a victims’ compensation fund with no apparent knowledge of how it worked, and blew off concern from the victims’ families that GM didn’t care about those who died as a result of their error.
From our perspective, this PR blunder stems from an issue with corporate transparency. While the severity of the situation makes it understandable that a company with the size and heritage of General Motors might need to incorporate a smidge of political correctness into their public addresses, does that mean its executives must hide the truth? Given the lack of trust GM’s mistakes have already fostered, wouldn’t it be assumed that transparency is more essential now, than ever before?
Our suggestion to the conglomerate leader: Stop talking in circles and give real answers. Consumers and shareholders need more than empty sound bites to restore their faith in the GM brand and keep the household name just that: a household name. Consumers are willing to forgive brands that make mistakes, but only when these mistakes are properly acknowledged and the people in charge communicate a clear and realistic pathway to prevent future ones from happening.
As for GM, until they do, well that new Ferrari F12 Berlinetta doesn’t look half bad, now does it? (I’ll take one in red, please.)
What was your take on Mary Barra’s press conference? What advice would you give her to prevent another PR faux pas in the future?
We (and Mary Barra) would love to hear from you.