GM responds on Twitter to claims of unchecked racism

The automaker faces a lawsuit and public claims that black employees were harassed and threatened at a factory in Ohio. After a slow start, GM has ramped up its messaging online.

GM responds to racism complaints

Race relations might be the third rail of American culture, but a clear and decisive response is essential when your company makes the news for a racially charged incident.

Your PR team might be inclined to avoid highlighting the matter. You might want to issue a holding statement, investigate properly and wait for the hubbub to die down.  However, in today’s charged political atmosphere and social media news cycle, waiting would be a disastrous first move.

That’s what GM discovered after news reports of harassment of black workers at a plant in Toledo, Ohio. Workers reported nooses, verbal threats and other mistreatment, leading to a lawsuit against the carmaker.

Newsweek reported:

Pictures taken by black workers at a General Motors plant in Ohio show the level of abuse they had to endure, as they sue the company for discrimination.

The images were supplied by the lawyers representing ten black workers employed at General Motors’s Powertrain plant in Toledo who are now suing the company. They show one of several nooses hung at the facility, a “whites only” sign written in the bathroom, and a racist message scrawled on one of the walls.

In the newly filed suit seeking redress for racial discrimination, the workers have detailed how they were made to fear for their lives as white supremacist signs were drawn throughout the plant, including swastikas and a white nationalist pentagram.

They allege they were referred to as “boy,” “monkey” and “n*****” by their colleagues and were eventually threatened with guns and makeshift weapons as the abuse intensified.

After a slow start, GM has begun to vocally push back on the criticism it faces both on social media and in traditional media outlets.

The Hill reported:

General Motors said Monday that it has “zero tolerance for discrimination” following allegations of racism at a plant in Ohio.

“We’re outraged that anyone would be subjected to racist behavior. We have zero tolerance for discrimination – this is not who we are. We’re working to drive this out of our workplaces,” the company wrote in several tweets responding to users.

The social media messaging was styled after official language in a statement sent to news outlets.

CNN reported:

The statement tweeted from the General Motors account echoes language now used in a statement by Gerald Johnson, the company’s vice president of North American manufacturing.

“I’m outraged that any of our employees would be subjected to harassment. GM’s stand is clear: We have zero tolerance for racist or discriminatory behavior,” Johnson’s statement says. “This behavior is unacceptable and we’re going to drive it out of the workplace.”

Reports shared the harrowing details of the alleged harassment, painting a vivid picture for readers.

CNN continued:

CNN spoke with two of the employees involved in the lawsuit, both supervisors, who shared how they say they were threatened, called the N-word and faced with a workplace where black supervisors were denounced as “boy” and ignored by their subordinates and where black employees were called “monkey” or told to “go back to Africa.”

According to the lawsuit, black employees were warned a white colleague’s “daddy” was in the Ku Klux Klan and white workers wore shirts with Nazi symbols underneath their coveralls.

Marcus Boyd, who is black, said a white employee he oversaw once told him: “Back in the day, you would have been buried with a shovel.” Boyd reported that incident to his supervisor.

The worker was taken to a disciplinary hearing with a union official and a business leader where he freely admitted what he had said, Boyd recalled.

But then Boyd himself was pulled aside and advised to let the matter go if he wanted to get along at the plant, he said. No disciplinary action was taken, Boyd said.

GM’s holding statement, though clear and concise, wasn’t enough to stem the online backlash.

CNN reported:

Initially, GM declined to be interviewed because of the pending litigation, but provided a statement that it held mandatory meetings and closed the plant for a day to have training for every shift.

“Every day, everyone at General Motors is expected to uphold a set of values that are integral to the fabric of our culture,” GM said in the statement. “Discrimination and harassment are not acceptable and [are] in stark contrast to how we expect people to show up at work.”

It continued: “We treat any reported incident with sensitivity and urgency, and are committed to providing an environment that is safe, open and inclusive. General Motors is taking this matter seriously and addressing it through the appropriate court process.”

The incident has gotten heightened exposure given the politically charged atmosphere surrounding race relations in the U.S. in 2019. The two U.S. senators from Ohio condemned the report, illustrating how local incidents can quickly become national stories.

CNN reported:

Both US senators from Ohio issued statements after the story was published expressing the need to keep fighting racism.

“I am sad and outraged. We must stand with one voice and say together that we will not tolerate acts of racism and hate against our neighbors,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, said in a statement.

[…]Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, also issued a statement, saying: “Racism has no place in our society, and the fact that it is still going on today at this plant is outrageous and unacceptable. GM must address this and do so very quickly.”

GM executed an aggressive messaging campaign on social media, taking time to respond individually to many critics and concerned customers.

GM’s social media team members, who fielded the online outrage, signed each response with their initials.

Many on social media expressed their ire:

Some vowed to rethink their next car purchase:

The online statements align with many consumers’ position that it’s important for their favorite organizations to share their values. GM might have a big mountain to climb in order to reassure customers that its core principles align with their beliefs.

What do you think of GM’s response, Ragan/PR Daily readers?

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