Mary Barra, General Motors’ chief executive, is struggling to contain the fallout from the revelation that the carmaker failed for more than a decade to reveal concerns about the safety of ignition switches on some of its compact cars.
GM this week announced a slew of new recalls and more than doubled its expected charge this quarter to $750m. On Tuesday, Ms Barra and David Friedman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, appear before the US House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee to explain what went wrong and why.
Robert Wright and Shannon Bond report from New York
General Motors CEO Mary Barra
General Motors’ widening of the recalls of US cars and trucks for safety and other defects is a challenge for Mary Barra, its new chief executive, as she prepares to testify to Congress this week.
General Motors and Malaysia Airlines are both in trouble but one is giving a lesson in how to handle a fatal crisis while the other is offering a masterclass in how not to. There is a glaring contrast in the behaviour, and ability to cope with public criticism, of Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, and Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines – although Ms Barra has a simpler task.
Straight-talking Karl-Thomas Neumann, chief executive of Opel, has given the world of reputation management a useful new metaphor for brand-blight: the “red elephant”.
At the Geneva motor show, he told the FT that the General Motors-owned German marque had suffered from a perception problem:
There was a red elephant standing beside the car that nobody talked about which says: ‘You can’t buy me because I’m an Opel’ … and we are addressing this now.
Not welcome in the showroom (image: Dreamstime)
Whether or not Mr Neumann has mixed up “elephants in the room” and “red flags”, I find the image compelling enough to be worth spreading.
Plenty of companies persist in assuming that a brand’s historic reputation will sustain it, without tackling the scarlet pachyderm that may be frightening off customers. Antidotes include: 1) making such a noise about the brand that it drowns out the trumpeting of the creature standing alongside; 2) improving the quality of the product so that it is no longer dwarfed by the public (mis)perception about it.
GM's off – and Barra's driving (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Of two immediately obvious facts about Mary Barra, chief executive elect at General Motors, the more interesting is not that she is a woman but that she is a company “lifer”.
To my mind, GM looks as though it is signalling that it has turned the corner following the trauma of government bailout, just as Citigroup did when it appointed career insider Michael Corbat as chief executive last year.