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A Long Road to Reputation Recovery for General Motors

My family recently purchased a new car. The car needed to fit a toddler, several surfboards and a lot of gear. We passed on minivans and SUVs. We dismissed Toyota vehicles after learning of its 1.3 million car recall (sudden acceleration issues) and we did not look at General Motors. The automaker cut costs that led to many accidents and fatalities. As a result, it was recently fined $35M and has a growing recall of 2.6 million vehicles. We bought a Ford and to our surprise, it was a black F-150 pickup. It holds everything and has a bit of rebel spirit. The automaker’s “Ford Tough” tagline and superior quality control were branding linchpins for us.

Reputation is everything. Brands spend years carving out perfect images, but in a minute, they can implode and set back a company for years. Gone are the days when Tim Allen’s voiceover swagger enticed drivers to purchase Chevys. General Motors ignored its own burgeoning crisis of defective ignition switches for a decade while accidents and deaths stacked up.

General Motor’s crisis stems from another era when issues were swept under the carpet. The automaker was made first aware in 2001 that its Saturn Ion’s ignitions were switching independently of drivers from ON to OFF or ACC. General Motors told dealers to replace them with more robust parts, but it did not conduct a recall. Even after many crashes, it failed to enact safety measures to protect its customers or reputation.

What will happen to this iconic American brand? Can it survive the federal investigations, media coverage, several class action lawsuits, and new victim compensation funds? Will consumers ever trust General Motors? New CEO Mary Barra is trying to do damage control.

  • She has apologized and promised to take steps to improve General Motors’ future safety problems (we hope there are not more).
  • She dismissed the mistakes and separated her leadership from the old “GM.” According to its annual report, the “New GM” values simplicity, agility and accountability. “There’s never been a greater need to change, and there’s never been a better time.” That is an understatement.
  • The company appointed a new global head of vehicle safety and named a new VP in charge of global product integrity.
  • It hired a team of product investigators to examine consumer complaints and warranty claims for potential product safety issues in vehicles.
  • It is quickly replacing ignition switches in affected automobiles. As a result, General Motor’s dealers do not have enough loner cars for customers and are turning to rental car agencies to supplement.
  • Customers who have not made the repairs yet have been told to not hang dangling keys from the ignition. That’s unrealistic.
  • General Motors is to meet with regulators monthly and are mandated to report on every safety-related issue under consideration by the company and any communications with dealers.
  • The automaker has kicked off an increased social media presence.

General Motors’ road to reputation recovery is long, complex and dependent on winning back the trust of its customers. It’s only in its infancy. More truths still need to come out. Did Barra know about the ignition switches when she was a high-ranking engineer? How involved was its suppliers? Social media is only one tactic of a needed proactive comprehensive communications strategy that addresses the safety concerns of customers and the public. General Motors has an opportunity to change history by being honest and transparent in all of its operations to alter public perception. Separating itself as the “New GM” that is customer and safety centric, is a first step toward re-emerging and staying on the road for years.

What steps would you suggest to repair General Motors reputation?

-Maryanne Keeney, MKPR, Principal

President, Publicity Club of New England