GM's media relations: A new era

Published On: Apr 14 2014 05:38:55 PM EDT
Updated On: Apr 14 2014 10:58:52 PM EDT

Mary Barra is making changes within GM as a federal investigation continues.

DETROIT -

GM’s media relations Senior Vice President Selim Bingol has left the building.

He stepped down today in what may be the least surprising executive shuffle in Detroit since Rick Wagoner was cashiered by President Obama.

Selim came to GM via AT&T because Wagoner’s replacement, “Texas” Ed Whitacre, knew him, trusted him and brought him in. Those of us who deal regularly with GM’s media apparatus have never been close to Selim. He was insular, new to the auto industry and those who knew him well say he never really grew to care for, much less love, the car business. Considering executives at that level tend to work seven days a week, finding some kind of passion might have been helpful.

I will openly admit my ire and bitter bile in this blog a few weeks ago when GM decided to hold a news conference with Mary Barra and only invite 10 handpicked print reporters -- and no television cameras -- that Selim was the main target. I told him on the phone that night his actions were reprehensible and misguided. He literally had no response. No apology, no explanation, just silence at the other end of the phone. If I didn’t know any better I would have sworn he felt as if I were bothering him or wasting his time. He didn’t even want to say that!

The silence spoke volumes. There is a claim among those who have regular dealings within the company that General Motors has never shed its pre-bankruptcy arrogance; that for all intents and purposes GM’s culture remains one of “we know our business better than you do” even after the company was run through its “quick rinse” bankruptcy. Previous GM CEO Dan Ackerson openly admitted that was the toughest part of his job: trying to change that culture. Whether Selim brought his aloof management style from AT&T or Microsoft, where he worked before AT&T, or picked it up inside the Ren Cen, his approach to the job only gave credence to the concerns Ackerson talked about.

A CEO and his or her public relations director are almost married to each other. Mary Barra, fresh off a performance before Congress so mediocre that Saturday Night Live felt the need to run its parody TWICE, clearly decided she needed a new wingman with the public. The company would have you believe Bingol’s departure has nothing to do with the ignition switch recall. But how could that possibly be? The company continues reeling from every kind of PR misstep imaginable within that disastrous chapter than is far from over.

The most recent was last Thursday. The company revealed part of the delay that put a mere trickle of new ignition switches in dealer repair shops on Friday was the fact that it needed to fix yet another component in the faulty ignition switch. GM admitted drivers were able to remove the key from the ignition while the car was running. This did not come out during congressional testimony.

Instead, Bingol waited until the night before parts were due to arrive to announce the problem along with another massive recall of the exact same million and a half cars. Bingol and his team made the new recall sound almost harmless in a throwaway line in a press release trying to announce everything was hunky dory and GM’s decade old small sedans were going to get fixed asap. With moves like this no wonder congress is suspicious GM is hiding things. We will never know whether that was the final straw for Mary Barra but the company’s desire to show it is a new company and that the old GM culture of arrogance is behind it continues taking a beating. It clearly was time for a change.

The name I’ve heard bandied about as Bingol’s replacement today is Julie Hamp. She is a former GM media relations executive who left GM for PepsiCo several years ago, and recently went to work at Toyota. She knows Mary Barra and worked on the GM European media relations team which means she has global experience executives at that level tend to have in the auto industry.

View: Julie Hamp’s profile from Toyota

Whether Hamp will come back to Detroit is anyone’s guess considering she is in charge of Toyota’s North American media relations operation, the company’s largest. But analysts I know say she is the right choice for the job. Now it’s a matter of making a deal sweet enough to pry her from Toyota.

Speaking of tough jobs! We’ll keep you posted.

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