General Motors will have its day in court, or in lawyers’ conference rooms where it will settle for hundreds of millions of dollars with victims of its ignition malfunctions. But in the court of public perception, GM is already guilty as charged.
Can the company ever hope to change that?
GM apparently delayed, denied and deceived, — what we call the ‘Death Strategy’ — in its crisis management. The ignition lock failure goes back more than a decade and is apparently the cause of 10 deaths. The New York Times today reports that GM officials misled victims families for almost five years on the company’s complicity and knowledge of the defect.
That will all sort itself out, but today we want to look more closely at how GM is managing the fallout on social media. Comments on its Facebook page, Twitter feeds and on blogs are receiving a lot of company attention. And at least for now, it appears GM is reacting effectively.
How far is GM willing to go? Here’s an example of its approach, from another Times story.
Lauren Munhoven, the mother of a 2-year-old in Ketchikan, Alaska, turned to Twitter after wasting an hour on the phone with G.M. trying to get help with her 2006 Saturn Ion. Those Ions, and five other models, were recalled in February because of a defective ignition switch that, if bumped or weighed down by a heavy key ring, could turn off, shutting down the engine and disabling the air bags.
She wrote in a public tweet:
@GM your agents keep telling me to take my car to a GM dealer for the recall, after I’ve explained I live on an island in Alaska! Help!!!!
— lauren munhoven (@AKLolly) March 13, 2014
After a series of private messages with a member of G.M.’s Twitter team, the company agreed to pay the $600 cost of a round-trip ferry to ship Ms. Munhoven’s car to the nearest dealer, about 300 miles away in Juneau, and pay for a rental car for the time she is without the Saturn.
She credited the public nature of Twitter complaints for getting G.M.’s attention. “Over Twitter, the service was a lot better,” she said. She was so pleased that she posted a public thank-you on Twitter.
Not every company has a “Twitter team,” but the sensitivity of companies to social media is evident. Customer Service was non-responsive, but public exposure via social media weighs heavily. [Thanks to my EMA colleague John Lacey for flagging the Times story.]
“This issue cannot define G.M. going forward,” said Dave Evans, vice president for social strategy at Lithium Technologies, a San Francisco firm that helps companies manage customer service on social networks. “They really have the opportunity to fundamentally redefine themselves as an open, transparent, listening organization.”
That transformation is, after all, the endgame for aggressive and successful crisis management. And that’s why GM is paying so much attention to social media — which is the vox populi of our modern world. If you can take a company that is perceived as negligent, unresponsive and responsible for customer deaths and recast it as open, responsive, helpful and safe, GM will come out of this hundreds of millions of dollars poorer, but richer in reputation.
That’s the goal anyway. But so was building safe cars.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mowerpr.com/crisisready . Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.