General Motors CEO Mary Barra is back in the news.
GM media handlers who know she will be walking into the Lion’s Den next week in Washington D.C. decided it is a good idea to continue trying to hone the message of contriteness and diligence. They have said all along the company will ultimately be judged by how it handles this recall. They are now pulling out all the stops to get out in front of a losing message.
They have constructed a new website showing Mary Barra listening in on an ignition switch recall phone line to see if customers are getting the proper care. It’s a personal touch that goes along with Barra’s continued insistence that the recalled cars are safe to drive:
"The simple answer to that question is yes. GM engineers have done extensive analysis to make sure if you only have the key or the key only on the ring that the vehicle is safe to drive. In fact when they presented this to me the very first question I asked is would you let your family, your spouse, your children drive these vehicles in this condition and they said yes."
But what really happens when or if the ignition switch flips from the on position to accessory/off position the power steering is lost along with the airbags. GM engineers have apparently testified in depositions they felt drivers had the opportunity to merely coast to the side of the road and restart the vehicle. But it was in these situations at least a dozen people have died -- mostly in Ions and Cobalts. It’s fairly clear the drivers ended up surprised by the power loss and to hear plaintiff attorneys tell it, the drivers found themselves in deadly situations they could not manage struggling with the steering wheel and then having no airbag protection.
There is more trouble here, though. Today we found a Lathrop Village woman who drives a 2007 Saturn Ion which she and her husband purchased used. They have never brought it to a dealer and they fell between the proverbial cracks. They did not know about the recall because they didn’t get a recall letter and they followed neither the headlines nor Mary Barra’s attempts to clarify this murky message. When we played Barra’s video for her she was unimpressed and unmoved. She wants a rental car and now.
More than that today, though, is it appears Barra wasn’t overly clear and overreached unintentionally. In the first video she recorded she said the following: "I want to make it clear to our customers that you are our compass and we intend to make this recall as smooth as possible for you. We will not let it ever happen again. We will learn from this and we will be a better company. Thank you for your patience."
All of that is well and good but the GM attorneys might want to re-think the one line: Won’t ever let what happen again? A catastrophically bad ignition switch get onto the road? Another recall? Engineers miss the connection between airbags and ignition switches? What? This further confuses an already confusing situation. Trying to assure customers they have internal safety processes in place at the highest levels of the company now, whereas before no one ever thought it necessary, is likely of small comfort.
In saying “it will never happen again," Barra is promising the impossible. Recalls are a way of life in the auto industry. Just today Nissan recalled nearly a million vehicles because of airbag issues. Ford had the Bridgestone/Firestone tires. Toyota just paid a billion-dollar fine to the Department of Justice for its sudden acceleration. Just last week Barra found herself announcing three new recalls of some of her most highly touted new cars such as the Cadillac XTS. Is this the line of demarcation -- “we will not let it ever happen again" -- after the last three recalls? Is it tonight? Likely not!
They obviously intend to say “we will never let this kind of disaster happen again” but they did not say that. They are using wording insufficient to the task. There is peril in this kind of mistake. I predict congressmen and women on the House energy and commerce committee will ask such a question. They will be looking to get re-elected and act tough roughing up a CEO, female or not. This will cause her trouble on the immediate level but it will also no doubt cause confusion the next time Barra announces a recall. This is rock and hard place territory.
In the modern auto industry, recalls are not something you can avoid and, in fact, small recalls are the exception. The reason why is because in order for car companies to enjoy the high profitability of global economies of scale they have to use one part in a lot of cars all around the world. The auto industry has been cutthroat for years and the large original equipment manufacturers have leaned on their suppliers to cut costs to the bone, which is how quality problems find their way into a million vehicle recalls on a regular basis.
Mary Barra wants and needs to gain control over the message here in this ignition switch recall, but after a second round of company-made videos, very little appears under control.