Newly installed General Motors CEO Mary Barra is turning out to be the Sgt. Schultz of the auto industry.
For those too young to remember, Sgt. Schultz was the memorable German army guard in a fictional World War II POW camp in the 1960s TV comedy, “Hogan’s Heroes.” Sgt. Schultz was famous for turning a blind eye to blatant events right in front of him, and protesting loudly, “I know nothing! I see nothing!”
That seemed to be Barra’s go-to mantra last week when she spent a bruising two days testifying before Congress that she knew nothing about the now infamous ignition switch problem that went unfixed for more than a decade, despite being blamed for at least a dozen deaths. Reports allege the defect caused some GM ignitions to be switched off as cars were being driven, rendering them powerless – and helpless – on busy highways. To add insult to injury (literally), the loss of power also rendered useless the air bags that could possibly have saved some of the victims.
Ms. Barra’s “I know nothing” testimony was an abysmal performance, in what The New York Times bluntly described as “a searing crisis for Ms. Barra and a management team that had hoped the congressional hearings would buy the company time to start its recall of 2.6 million small cars and complete an internal investigation of why it failed to fix (the) deadly safety defect.”
Barra’s pathetically anemic testimony focused on her self-proclaimed lack of knowledge of the defect, despite being with G.M. for more than 30 years.
The company’s next tactic was to hire an outside crisis management advisor. Ordinarily, I would applaud such a move, but in this case I have to question G.M.’s thinking. They turned for help to Jeff Eller, a man whose biggest claim to crisis fame was his involvement in the poorly handled Bridgestone/Firestone tire recall of 2000 that caused that company to suffer one of the biggest losses of consumer confidence in its history. More than 200 people died as a result of tire defects. As I first said in a tweet last week, that’s like getting pummeled by Muhammad Ali and claiming you have “boxing experience.”
Previously, Eller had been involved in the Clinton White House, where he was one of a handful of aides caught up in the “Travelgate” crisis, charged with firing the entire White House travel office and turning the services over to Arkansas friends of the Clintons. When the firings were investigated and Eller was called to testify before a Grand Jury, he uttered a version of “I don’t know” more than 200 times, according to a report by The New York Times.
Hmm. Birds of a feather…?
And yesterday, G.M. reportedly fired its head of public relations, while maintaining with a straight face that the firing had nothing to do with Ms. Barra’s public embarrassment before Congress.
G.M. has a lot of work to do to manage its way through its current crisis, both in terms of actual management, as well as the public’s perception of the crisis, better known as crisis communications. A more open and candid CEO, as well as advisors with victories notched into their belts as well as professional communicators who know how to prep the chief before public testimony, would be a good way to begin.