GM’s recall scandal is filled with crisis comms missteps

A look at how the carmaker’s PR, media relations and internal communications surrounding its ignition switch recall could have been better.

General Motors acknowledges it somewhere made a very wrong turn regarding the controversy related to its ignition switch defect, where 13 drivers died. But is the carmaker now showing us a new and improved model for handling crisis communications?

Not all is bad, but we don’t see a major overhaul. Here’s what caught our eye:

Public relations: The New York Times tells us the law firms GM hired to conduct an internal investigation have worked for the organization before. This, in the public’s eye, can stall the internal investigation’s perception before it starts. Internal investigations in general already face skepticism. So why employ law firms, which because of their previous working relationships, might erode to even the slightest degree the trust in an internal investigation?

True, those law firms might have superb track records and a motivation to appear objective. But why risk using law firms the public might question even before the attorneys bill the first hour?

Media relations: The Times later reported a spokeswoman for GM Canada declined to comment on a Canadian investigation into a crash’s potential link to the car company’s ignition defect controversy.

When facing a crisis, companies must prepare themselves for tough questions. If you can’t comment, explain why. Do you need more time to gather the facts? Does the company include a policy preventing you from discussing a particular issue?

The Times wrote, “She did not respond to a question on whether the company was aware of other possible crashes in Canada related to the defective switches. ‘GM Canada takes our communications with Transport Canada seriously,’ she said. ‘Our investigation into the ignition-switch issue is ongoing and we are working diligently to reach affected customers.’

Those quotes are clunkers. Was GM worried readers thought the company took communications casually? Did it believe we mistakenly thought it had stopped the investigation? And, given what some customers experienced, your best adjective for them is “affected”? We understand the importance of repeating key messages, but provide the public information that actually is … well … information. For GM, who is following up cases outside the United States? What is the procedure for looking into these cases? When can you provide more details?

If this is the time for true transparency, why not respond to a question about other crashes? GM’s long-term reputation is up for grabs. Give us quotes that sound real, show a little sympathy and give us the impression you’re at least trying to answer the questions like a human, not like a robot with preprogrammed messages for anyone who calls.

Employee communications: GM’s crisis reminds us that for every external crisis, there should be an equal (but not opposite) internal communications plan to address it.

Failing to have an internal communications plan in step with an external communications plan could inflict brand damage.

It appears that CEO Mary Barra is taking steps to keep its employees updated on the situation as seen both this March 4 memo to employees and in this March 17 internal video to update employees.

In our view based on what we know, both the memo and the video seemed a bit late considering Barra mentions this was brought to her team’s attention a few weeks prior to the memo. Timeliness is key. To be fair, we aren’t privy to any other employee messages that might have been distributed. We only know about the two mentioned above because they were posted publicly.

Companies these days appear to produce apologies almost as often as their assembly lines produce products. We begin to wonder if saying, “I’m sorry” genuinely comes from the heart or serves as a strategic, superficial attempt to quell a crisis. We have no reason to believe the apology from GM’s chief executive isn’t heartfelt. But one way we measure apologies in the long-term is by the company’s ultimate actions and willingness to engage in true transparency.

As we learn more down the road, how GM handles the public, the media’s tough questions and its own employees will determine if GM stands for “Genuine” Motors.

Keith and Loren Yaskin own The Flip Side Communications LLC in Scottsdale, Arizona. The company offers public relations, media training, employee communications and video production.

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