Asleep at the switch- One simple lesson from the GM scandal

Today’s guest blog was authored by Peppercomm’s Editorial Director, Matt Purdue. In addition to being the former editor of Worth Magazine, Matt is as direct descendent of Abraham Zapruder (who, as JFK conspiracy theorists know, captured the entire, horrific scene on his 8mm camera). Enjoy!


To call the current imbroglio at General Motors (GM) a PR crisis demeans the victims of GM’s apparent incompetence and neglect of customer safety. But there is one critical lesson all of us in the corporate communications business must take from this scandal.

First, a bit of background. GM designed and installed a faulty ignition switch in millions of cars. The design defect is being at least partly blamed for 54 accidents and 13 deaths. GM discovered this problem in 2001, but only issued a recall earlier this year. Between then and now, according to a report by an independent investigator released last week, GM fiddled while customers literally burned. The investigator, Anton Valukas, cited a “history of failures” as the car maker forsook addressing the problem.

GM CEO Marry Barra has followed Crisis PR 101 on this. She’s been basically contrite, promised to “do the right thing” for the victims, ordered an investigation and responded to requests to appear before Congress. But – and here comes the lesson for all of us – she’s done one thing that most chief executives in her position would be loath to do. She’s put herself directly in the crosshairs moving forward.

In her remarks during a GM global town hall meeting last Thursday (please don’t ask me to explain the ridiculous corp comm oxymoron that is the “global town hall”), Barra exhorted her employees to report any problem they feel is not being correctly handled to their supervisor. And if they still don’t feel it is being managed properly to come directly to her. That’s an incredibly bold request – and one that is sadly lacking from most CEOs during crises like this.

During times of trouble, stakeholders want, no, need to know that someone has their hands on the steering wheel. By making herself the ultimate authority over any future issues at GM, Barra has set herself up to be either the savior or the goat. But at least she has courageously accepted accountability.

The next time your client or your company runs off the road, will you as a communications professional have the nerve to suggest that the CEO become the final word in risk management?

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