The GM recall: Damage control on steroids

DETROIT – Late this afternoon my phone rang while I was writing my story about how General Motors, among other things, appointed a new safety vice president, had new CEO Mary Barra answering questions at a press conference and in the offing had entirely shut me and every other broadcaster in the nation [save one] out of that morning press conference.

On the phone GM had a question for me: A very cordial GM media relations representative wanted to know whether I was going to attend a press briefing in Pontiac tomorrow. After I caught my breath upon realizing what was happening, the answer emerged as an emphatic NO! In an impossibly stunning and embarrassing display of chutzpah GM wanted to know if I would participate in a "warm, fuzzy" press event in the morning.

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This is a tightly controlled staged press event regarding a product launch. The particulars are hidden somewhere in my overstuffed email box and I hadn't read the finer details to see what they are showing. My deleted items bin is where it will soon wind up. We will not be there! If they were showing off a new Corvette the answer would still be no!

You see, these little events are something we tend to cover when we can as time and camera availability permits because you get to see new product and an occasional executive will sometimes answer a question off topic. On a rare occasion there is a real news nugget to be uncovered. Usually, though, the company gets what it wants: a freebie, some easy and inexpensive publicity. We are less than interested after what happened when it really mattered today.

GM invited only 10 print reporters to the GM Ren Cen headquarters for a press briefing with Mary Barra. Tightly-controlled, hand-picked reporters were there. The usual gang that could be counted on to ask questions that would not shock or otherwise fluster the new CEO. CNBC's Phil LeBeau was invited to listen in on the phone as Mary Barra talked about the biggest crisis at GM since its bankruptcy. It was nut cutting time at the Ren Cen and instead of having the nation's broadcasters, or the local broadcasters who talk with their shareholders and employees every night, they chose to just go with the arm's length print medium.

In thinking back to the GM bankruptcy, CEO Rick Wagoner, as beleaguered as he was, would stand up and answer every question at press conferences that included every manner of reporter and camera. GM was in crisis, it was looking for a handout that it eventually received from the federal government and Wagoner took the public beating he so richly deserved. He was the multi-millionaire executive, his desk was where the buck stopped and he knew he had no choice but to be held accountable. That's how it is supposed to work. It was unpleasant, but Wagoner stood up before shareholders, employees and the nation to answer the toughest questions in the full light of day. No coddling there.

Fast forward five years and the new media handlers around Mary Barra believe she is too delicate a flower for that. In her honeymoon period as the top executive, proud to acknowledge her salary will eclipse $12 million this year, a woman who is highly touted as a GM lifer who has been through and seen a lot is somehow and for inexplicable reasons being held back from the true test of her leadership: true accountability in the sunshine. They and GM's attorneys obviously believe she is either too new or inexperienced to answer questions on camera with all those pesky bright lights. The tightly controlled and amateur looking video of Mary Barra GM put out yesterday appears the most the management and media relations seem to be able to live with. Ladies and gentlemen the building is burning! What in the world is going on here?

Now before I am accused of being petulant and cranky because I was not one of the chosen few consider this: I am YOUR representative inside a news conference. Our cameras are YOUR eyes and our questions are YOUR questions. We exist to represent you in the arena of public truth and accountability. We report what is going on in as many areas as we can for YOU. I wasn't shut out of today's news conference, YOU WERE!

General Motors knew this when it pulled the trigger on this dainty little tea and crumpet session. It's management team didn't care. But rest assured, as tough a grilling as she might have seen today she will get doubly hard in a couple of weeks in Washington, D.C. Congressmen and women, up for re-election, are licking their collective chops at the opportunity to run Mary Barra through the bad PR wringer just to show how tough they are. Will Mary Barra's media relations team spend night and day for the next two weeks preparing her for that? Probably! Would having cameras in today's briefing been a good bit of experience for her to have prior to that coming public brow beating? Yes! Instead, they whiffed. All of this is beyond disappointing and monumentally stunning in that this company just emerged from bankruptcy where the federal government had to step in and prop up and recreate it. American taxpayers lost billions of their tax dollars in the deal. One would think this would have crossed someone's mind in the upper executive suites.

This decision to be small time when it mattered most is no tempest in a tea pot. Now GM is in the position of trying to get out in front of a story that has long since left the barn. It is on its own and creating more controversy than it's solving. If this is the new GM the old one is starting to look positively competent!

And just for emphasis please feel free to have that product launch tomorrow without me or my camera!

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About the Author:

Rod Meloni is an Emmy Award-winning Business Editor on Local 4 News and a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional.