GENERAL MOTORS SPECIAL REPORT: The road to revival

A re-energized comms team at GM is redefining how it uses PR to sell cars and trucks.

A re-energized comms team at GM is redefining how it uses PR to sell cars and trucks.

It's an old business cliche to say that turning around the image of a corporate Goliath like General Motors is akin to turning a battleship. But in GM's case, the cliche isn't quite accurate. GM isn't a business battleship; it's an armada consisting of the corporate brand and individual product brands. The GM brand flotilla has been buffeted by gale-force winds and rough sailing for years, losing its way in the increasingly crowded seas of the US auto marketplace. From the late 1970s into the '90s, the captains at GM's helm seemed to be sailing on autopilot, hoping the seas would calm and GM would again become the US' pre-eminent car maker. In those days, senior executives more often than not shied away from the press rather than embracing it as a way to communicate GM's brand messages to an increasingly skeptical public. Veteran auto-industry watcher and PR man Al Vinikour recalls, "Senior managers were like lemmings; they'd see journalists and just run away." By the late '90s, however, new senior management was in place and the company began to chart a much more proactive business direction. Brands - from Cadillac to Buick, Saturn to Pontiac - began getting makeovers, a process that continues today. And the corporate GM brand, neglected for some 20 years, was looked at anew. The transformation in GM communications began when auto PR legend Steve Harris came on board in February 1999 to captain the effort. "When I joined GM, I said Rick [Wagoner, GM's chairman], if you don't want to change it, don't ask me to come," Harris recalls. That change, started under Harris, is continuing now with Tom Kowaleski, who took over as VP, GM global communications in January. "I took the first step," says Harris. "Tom is taking it to a higher degree, addressing the [global nature] of GM communications." While GM may be somewhat unusual in the size of its communications team - 600 people around the world - its efforts hold lessons for all corporate communicators trying to build a strong brand for their companies. Says Mark Hass, an MS&L North American president with Hass MS&L, which works with GM, "The success of GM in trying to build a single organization that sets an overall tone is a very effective model for large consumer companies that operate in different markets. You need to establish more than a vision. You need a path." Kowaleski summarizes his function in very succinct terms. "Our job at the macro level is to be able to reflect very clearly, simply, and consistently to the world what we are as a company and what our mission is," he says. Internally, GM communications has to provide support and strategic counsel to senior management. It also has to convey company decisions to both internal and external audiences. And GM communicators need to "be very good students of what's going on in the world. We need to look down the road and around the corner," he says. The three pillars of GM's message GM has crafted three new messaging pillars for its corporate brand. In the process, it has reorganized its communications team to ensure those messages permeate every corner of the GM global empire. Those pillars are growth, corporate responsibility, and making great vehicles. GM's goal is to be the top seller in every category in which it operates, but it also wants to establish goodwill in local communities and display social responsibility in areas such as environmental issues and consumer and employee safety, Kowaleski notes. The pillars "are the three things we're about as a company," Kowaleski says. For his communications team, they serve as guides that frame all communications efforts. Wherever they operate around the world, GM communicators, when deciding on programs or messaging, should be thinking, "If it doesn't fit under one of those pillars, you really ought to be asking yourself why are you doing it," Kowaleski explains. "The message pillars really work and people refer to them" in making PR decisions, confirms Hass, who has been dealing with GM since 1999. Adds Kowaleski, "[In] developing the message pillars, they're not just aspirations for the future, they're also for today." GM's PR team has set the goal of being a leader in its discipline. To that end, its strategy board this past summer formulated its definition of what it would mean to be the best in communications. Its definition, which went to leaders in the department, was, "GM communications is recognized for playing a leading role in defining the GM story for internal and external audiences for the purposes of improving GM's reputation, image, and relevance." The board went on to specify metrics it would look at to decide if it was achieving that aim. It also defined key audiences to measure - senior GM executives, GM employees, and the global media. Among the metrics are global alignment to its message pillars and consistency of tone and appearance in GM communications. "You need the building blocks," says Kowaleski, "and then you need to build with those blocks." Kowaleski and his senior communications managers talk about closing the perception-to-reality gap about GM. It's no longer the stodgy big company that doesn't make cars consumers want, they say. Various industry surveys have shown its cars becoming more reliable, and auto reviewers have given high marks to some of its new products, such as offerings from Cadillac, yet many consumers still think of the company as the old GM that wasn't competitive in many areas. To get GM's message across in the US and the world, Kowaleski is working hard to make sure PR is part of all GM marketing and business discussions. GM communications people sit on all the major strategy boards that guide activities both in North America and around the globe. "We make sure we are partners to all the other functions in the company," explains Kowaleski. "The direction to us is to be honest, to be open, and to give counsel in a way that is collaborative rather than argumentative." GM also has a communications global process council that includes subgroups for HR issues, as well as corporate, employee, and product communications. Kowaleski is also making sure he has the talent to carry out the missions at hand. He and other senior communications executives, such as Gary Grates, VP, GM North America communications, have also been working hard to ensure that GM communicators are kept abreast of important trends and receive the type of ongoing education that will make them more effective parts of the communications team. Edd Snyder, executive director, corporate communications, has been asking directors at GM to evaluate the talent of people one to two levels below them in the organizational chart. Basically, these people are being rated on their readiness to move up the communications food chain if needed. If they're rated green, it means they are talented and seasoned enough to be doing their bosses' jobs today; a yellow rating means they need two or three more years of experience; red means they're five years away. The evaluations can be used to help develop individuals' communications skills and broaden their experience, making them more valuable to GM in the process. The endeavor, started at the beginning of 2004 and called "bench-strength assessment," has already been completed in Asia, Europe, and North America. So now Snyder has evaluations on at least 200 GM communicators. Snyder also asks communications directors, whom he meets with on a weekly basis, to offer monthly profiles of someone in their areas and to highlight new people within their areas. Such discussions bring to light someone's skills that might be useful in another part of the world for special projects, he notes. Finding and retaining communications talent starts early for GM. It's been expanding its college-recruiting efforts this year, trying to reach beyond the traditional Midwest markets where GM communicators have come from in the past, Snyder says. Syracuse University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of South Carolina are among schools that have been added to the recruitment list. "We're putting special attention to places we have not looked before," says Snyder. Getting a more geographically and ethnically diverse base of communicators can only help GM better understand its diverse consumer audiences, he reasons. Improved internal comms GM communicators are getting an increasing flow of internal information to help them do their jobs, as well. Grates writes monthly case studies of how other major companies deal with communications issues, for example. Twice monthly, a publication called Trend Spotting is e-mailed to GM communicators. It discusses trends that impact PR. Grates also writes a column for GM's internal communicators' website, ComQuest, and Kowaleski writes his own column, Snapshot. Speaking of internal communications, Grates says, "You constantly give them the larger picture." Grates was brought in by Harris to improve GM internal communications. He moved from an outside consultant to be a GM staffer in 2001. GM senior-executive speeches have been put on a website titled "Hear Ye Here Ye." Launched in July, this site allows GM communicators around the world to see what senior management is saying and to make sure key messages are reflected in their regions. "It drives consistency of messages, it's a tool they can tap into," says Thomas Pyden, staff director, executive communications. Pyden works with GM's senior-most managers, overseeing speechwriting and matching speaking opportunities with various executives to maximize efforts to get GM key messages to the right target audiences. The company's four top executives made 350 speaking appearances in 2003. Pyden says, "That suggests a management group that values communications. That's a big difference from previous administrations." One of the department changes that began under Harris was to put internal communications people in all GM facilities, an effort to improve employee and local communications. Those employees now carry a wallet card headlined "Guideposts for internal communications professionals at General Motors." It lists 14 key messages that staffers should remember in their efforts. One example: "The most important contribution we can make is to ensure employees know where they are on the journey and how they can engage and contribute to the business." Working within the budget Giving the world an idea of where GM is going in 2005 will be done with continued pressure on spending, something that has become a fact of life at GM - and other companies - that are trying to rein in costs. Notes Hass of working with GM, "We're feeling budget pressures all the time. The pressure I'm feeling is related to the business pressure [GM] is feeling. The issue for my people is, how do we help [GM]?" GM works closely with agencies such as Hass/MS&L, and Hass is a senior counselor to the communications-strategy board. GM doesn't have an AOR and instead works with a variety of firms, often hiring them because of specific expertise in a given area that relates to a project at hand. "They really challenge agencies to bring fresh thinking across the board," says Andy Polansky, president of Weber Shandwick. WS and other Interpublic firms that work for GM in advertising and branding formed their own GM strategy council about a year ago to discuss their work for the automaker and ensure consistency of messaging, notes Stan Stein, EVP in WS's Detroit office. GM communications continues to look at ways to do more with less. It's been consolidating events for journalists to save money. Now it's looking at streamlining media monitoring around the world. Finding one approach, and likely one global provider of the service, is sure to cut costs, but it also will provide a consistent measurement yardstick to better measure communications effectiveness, contends Kowaleski. In the third quarter of this year, GM reported a loss of $130 million from its global automotive business compared to net income of $34 million in the same period last year. GM North America reported a loss of $22 million in the quarter. Communications' job isn't to sugarcoat such numbers, but rather to put them in context for both external and internal audiences, Kowaleski says. "If a company has a clear goal, but people don't understand it, that's not good." GM and other automakers have become hooked on offering rebates and other incentives to move cars off their dealers' lots in this slow economy. While GM communications discusses incentives, it again tries to put them into an industry perspective. Steering GM's massive communications fleet might be overwhelming for some, but Kowaleski is up to the challenge, say those who know him. "Tom has always been able to cram more into a day than anyone I know," says Harris. Agrees Vinikour: "Tommy definitely is a type upper-case-A personality." All essential qualities to keep the new GM communications fleet on course. ------------ The car's the star At the end of the day, it's all about the cars. While GM's corporate team focuses on its issues, the company's brand teams are dedicated to rebuilding product brand image. In fact, product PR is taking a central focus and is markedly better than in years past, those who follow the company say. "Tom Kowaleski has made it more product-PR friendly," confirms PR veteran Al Vinikour. "They have rejuvenated the product-PR side." Cadillac is setting the standard on this front. Thought of not that long ago as a car for grandparents, Cadillac has successfully attracted younger buyers with futuristic new styling and influencer events. One way GM has been reaching trendsetters is with more PR aimed at the key influencers, explains Peg Holmes, director of regional marketing and cross-divisional communications. GM's Ten celebrity fashion show, held the week before the Oscars in LA, has become a well-covered event. Even the likes of People devoted a full page in its March 15, 2004 issue to showcasing which stars were seen on its red carpet. The show features celebrities wearing designer outfits matched up with various GM vehicles. Earlier this year, GM held an influencer event for Hummer and Cadillac in LA that featured 12 athletes and 12 celebrities, together with their customized Hummers or Cadillacs. A judging panel picked the winning car, dubbed the "King of Bling." "The cars were the stars," says Dee Allen, staff director, international and North American product communications. GM is focusing on Buick as its next brand phoenix, and Saturn is not far behind. Hilary Spittle, director of corporate brand strategy implementation, says of Buick, "We still have some work to do." The Buick brand likely will come in for heavy emphasis next year at the Chicago auto show, considered a major showcase for consumers. Buick last year showed its new LaCrosse in Chicago. That model debuted to mixed reviews, but there are more new Buicks coming. "I think their image is going to get better," says auto journalist Jeff Gilbert, who covers the auto business for WWJ-950, a news-radio station in Detroit. Marc Beckers, GM executive director, product communications, says GM wants Buick to become thought of as an entry-level luxury brand. As such, it will stress the voluptuous lines and luxury interiors of new Buick models. Saturn was a brand that started with terrific PR, but lost its way as GM failed to expand its product line. The brand now has some new products and more are on the way. PR efforts will continue to emphasize the positive customer experience of Saturn's no-haggle dealer network, but GM also hopes to rejuvenate the brand's image as its offerings expand. "We're going to have to change some people's mindset about what Saturn really is," says Terry Rhadigan, manager, global auto shows and events for GM. Saturn will have five new products to showcase in 2006. "Each brand has a heritage to build on," Beckers says of GM's various lines. "[The messages will focus on] looking at the historical strengths and cues, and also focusing on areas of the market we want to reach." Pontiac, for example, will continue to talk about its heritage as a sporty, performance-oriented line of vehicles, but will have more European styling cues as it tries to position itself as an affordable alternative to brands such as BMW, Beckers explains. Pontiac scored the auto PR coup of the year when it gave away more than $7 million worth of Pontiac G6s on the season premiere of Oprah this fall. The challenge now will be to maintain the positive PR generated by that event and extend it beyond Oprah Winfrey's female viewership to male buyers. Chevrolet has 10 new models coming in the next 20 months, solidifying its position as GM's broadest line of cars and trucks. The company will use that breadth of offerings to emphasize that it has something for everyone, Beckers says. Having auto-industry superstar Bob Lutz, formerly of Chrysler, at GM since September 2001 has shown the auto world that GM has gotten serious about designing appealing cars, Vinikour notes. Says Gilbert of Lutz, "I've seen him holding court at auto shows and I can't think that hurts. I think it helps GM a lot." GM has been trying to show its new self in a variety of ways. In September, for example, it held a major media event in France, bringing in 80 top auto and business writers from around the world to test drive more than 60 newly introduced GM vehicles, with 135 cars and trucks on site for the test drives. The event took six months of planning and required such Herculean feats as flying 32 models to France just before the event began. The test drive, which was held just before this year's Paris auto show, was a success, contends Kowaleski. "We laid out a very realistic picture of where we are in the world today and where we want to be," he explains. And journalists there seemed to get it. Monitoring media coverage after the Paris show, GM found that journalists who attended wrote with a different tone and attitude than those who had not been part of the event, Kowaleski adds. "They got a better understanding of where we're going as a company."

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.