The biggest domestic story in America this week was the slow drip of bad news for General Motors after the recall focused on a cheap ignition part that GM may have known was troubled for more than a dozen years.
Never mind that whatever happened at GM happened before the company’s bankruptcy, bailout and attempted reinvention. Never mind that two of the brands affected – Pontiac and Saturn – don’t exist anymore. For a company plagued by a 30-year history of quality questions and a degree of public resentment for its onetime standing as “Government Motors,” it has a very low margin for error in public opinion.
While the company has said some of the right things via emails and statements, it has yet to talk directly to the public, particularly through its potentially effective new CEO, Mary Barra. It’s time to, as a respected former client of ours used to say, “push people – not paper.”
But as I said on WDIV-TV in Detroit on Thursday night, a tug-of-war is surely happening inside GM’s headquarters between PR professionals who want to start influencing public opinion and lawyers who want the company to stay quiet. To use an analogy from sports, essentially, PR generally wants to play to win while legal wants to play not to lose. I’m hearing this weekend that few PR people are allowed “seats at the table” to make the case, while lawyers are, in fact, dominating the conversation in the corporate conference rooms.
With GM in the sights of the Federal Government as well as the public, today’s Sunday network talk shows would have been an ideal opportunity for GM to begin to explain how it is investigating, the facts about its quality top-to-bottom and express concern for those who may have been killed by this ignition problem by having Barra “make the rounds.” Instead, more news stories like this, in the New York Times, appear suggesting GM’s legal strategy may be flawed.
Sooner or later, PR will get an opportunity to tug hard enough at the rope and we’ll see Barra talking about this. Hopefully, for a company so important to Michigan and America, that will happen soon. But, today should have been the day.