GM CEO Mary T. Barra received a lot of notice last week for her two-day testimony before Congressional committees about the automaker’s ignition switch problems and the resulting deaths and delays in making the issue public.
As is too often the case, those realizations emerge after the bird doo splattered the car, not before. We have this saying: You can pay us now, or you can pay us three or four times as much later. This is not to be glib or fresh. The fact is that planning for and coping with a crisis early is far superior to trying to do so after positions have hardened, public opinion has weighed in, and your CEO is hauled before Congress for a thankless and humiliating round of “I know you screwed up.”
And, if this YouTube video of Barra’s testimony is any indication, she really needs those outside experts. One of our basic crisis management tenets is that 90 percent of what you convey is visual. Someone involved in GM PR or crisis management needed to hand Barra a statement to read whose text was in 24 or 30 point type so she didn’t have to wear her glasses to read it.
At the angle she uses them, her eyes were opaque reflections of TV lights, sapping all sincerity and distracting viewers in the extreme. While they were at it, her high-paid handlers should have removed the MS. BARRA sign that covers her lower half at the testimony table. It’s distracting and diminishes the opportunity to listen to her words.
Note that as soon as she finished reading her opening testimony, she removed the glasses.
In the end, the best view of her work before Congress was that she did it. She came, she got roughed up and she went home. She apologized, took responsibility and pledged an independent investigation of what went wrong. All those elements were part of the narrative before she went before the lights, but Congress people still like their time in the spotlight.
GM has a long way to go, both in getting past this crisis, and managing it.
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.