Barra is easily the highest-ranking woman this side of a major national leader and her company has thrown everything negative it could find at her. FDR had it easier in his First Hundred Days.
GM currently practically has more individual recalls in the works than it has models. Its biggest, over ignition failures blamed for a dozen deaths over more than 10 years, is really bad. Overall, GM is rounding up 2.3 million vehicles for various repairs.
GM released in advance some of what Barra plans to say to a Congressional subcommittee today on the recalls, and lack thereof. This is a smart crisis-management move, designed to set the tone publicly and before members of Congress get all fired up to give Barra a hard time.
She plans to apologize, again. And, she will promise a thorough, third-party investigation. While she came from within GM, there’s no evidence that she was directly responsible for GM’s inaction on the ignition failures. She’s also going to take responsibility, which is another plus.
But a great deal is at stake here, and the factors that caused this mess could preoccupy Barra and her team for the next five years, repeatedly distracting the company from growth and innovation at a key time in its history. As USA Today described it:
The exposure for GM — its resurgent post-bankruptcy reputation and profitability at risk — and for Barra, is far greater. Lawyers are beginning to line up to file class actions and liability suits, testing whether GM’s bankruptcy shied from pre-2009 claims will hold.
The additional key for Barra is to speak in specifics. If she gets into vague promises and lofty commitments, she’ll anger some already pretty irked Congress men and women. What will GM do, specifically, and what has it done to fix this problem? How can we be sure this won’t happen again? And by that they’ll mean the lack of reporting, the lack of accountability, and the failure to connect the proverbial dots between people dying and the improper ignition shut offs.
When a company as large as GM faces a crisis as debilitating and potentially paralyzing as this, a CEO in particular has the opportunity to step up. If Barra can convince Congress that she’s firmly at the helm, that heads are going to roll and that GM will be better for it, she can attain what we call “transformative leadership.” She can convince the world that she’s a caring, trustworthy and action-oriented CEO who will do a lot more than fix what ails 2.3 million vehicles.
If she can, GM will weather this crisis.
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 and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.