Matt Friedman: Why GM only talked to a few today


DETROIT – For the first time since the ignition recall crisis began, General Motors CEO Mary Barra talked to journalists today.

But it was only to a few selected reporters and I hear the interviews, combined, lasted less than one hour. Based on experience inside corporations at times of crisis, I believe this is likely all the PR team could negotiate from the lawyers and other executives, so they had to consider it the best they could do.

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In the tug-of-war between PR and Legal, PR has grabbed some rope since the weekend. Monday, an employee message video featuring Barra was released online to journalists. That way an "internal video" could make its way to the public. That was very tactful work by the PR team because, finally, GM got to show some face to the public, albeit in a very scripted, controlled way. Today, they grabbed a little more rope with these few interviews, that will at least make waves online.

It probably played out something like this: executives had one free hour on the calendar to work with today (ideally, it would have been far more), and the PR team selected a few "friendly" reporters, who were in close proximity, to come in to talk to Barra and North America chief Mark Reuss. They were able to get a few messages out to establish important facets of crisis communications - facts and reassurance - to at least generate some GM-centric coverage today. They are hoping this coverage has "legs" and will spread around the country via the Internet and news services.

As I advocated on Sunday, GM should have Barra "making the rounds" doing as many top-tier national, regional and local interviews as can be accommodated to reach all of the audiences to whom the company's reputation is important right now - potential customers, owners of affected cars, employees and policymakers. That concept certainly has advocates inside GM. But that kind of idea makes corporate lawyers very nervous in this situation. That's a shame. Any corporation in crisis would have to have a PR asset like Mary Barra. She's a fresh face to most audiences. She speaks very well with authority and credibility. Plus, she commands attention because she is far from the "central casting" picture of an auto company CEO.

When I first talked to Local 4 about this situation last week, GM hadn't said anything to the public other than statements and emails. They are doing better. But allowing an entire PR plan be executed, rather than pieces of it, would still be best course of action.

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