Barra goes to Washington: Top 3 things to watch
Tomorrow, April 1, marks a significant and perhaps pivotal chapter in the public relations spectacle that is the GM ignition switch recall crisis.
Since GM released YouTube videos featuring CEO Mary Barra delivering the last company messaging, to modest numbers of clicks online but relatively large traditional media coverage of them, the company has recalled millions of vehicles and ordered dealers to stop selling one Chevrolet model. As many inside newsrooms suggest, they are getting as much "bad news" out of the way as possible before the trip to Capitol Hill for Barra to answer questions from Congress.
Here are three things to watch as Barra steps out from company-controlled forums into one of the most challenging cauldrons in all of public speaking:
1) Her Message
In prepared remarks reportedly already submitted to Congress, Barra will address some of the fundamental messages to any successful adversity communications campaign. She will lay out facts, as GM currently sees them. She will provide reassurance that the company is handling this properly to ensure future safety.
And, importantly, the company's lawyers, PR advisors and government affairs team has apparently agreed on a way for her to express human emotion to the families of those who were killed by this product defect. Should those remarks make their way into widely-covered news, the company will have scored well-earned PR points.
2) Her Questioners
But the biggest threat to success for GM for the next two days comes from those will be asking the questions - politicians in an election year. At least some of the members of Congress will likely lob verbal grenades in an effort to make themselves "look good" and demonize GM.
For GM and Barra to be successful, she needs to respectfully answer their questions without contributing to the creation of a spectacle. Her preparation for this was likely closer to the preparation Presidential candidates use before debates rather than the type of training CEOs typically receive before potentially challenging media interviews.
3) Reaction From Outside of Michigan
Viewers of Local 4 "met" Mary Barra when she became CEO in December. The big car buff nationally "met" her during the North American International Auto Show in January. But when most Americans picture the CEO of General Motors, they aren't picturing someone who looks and sounds like Mary Barra. This is an opportunity for GM to capitalize on a unique communications asset - a CEO who looks and sounds like someone who could fit in just about everywhere, not just at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the country reacts. Also, in most of the country, GM's sales have suffered for decade because, among other reasons, a poor reputation for quality. This saga is crucial if GM is going to turn the tide of Toyotas and Hondas dominating roads across the country in ways you don't see around here.
--Matt Friedman runs the public relations firm Tanner Friedman.