GM's recent financial rebound has been impressive. Under the direction of its comms VP of two-plus years, the same could be said of the carmaker's reputation.
Selim Bingol could have picked one of many reasons to say "no" or "not yet" when he was approached about taking over General Motors' communications operations in 2010, such as the company's still-lingering bankruptcy, its sometimes- unpopular government bailout, or its disappearing product lines.
Yet Bingol, who was hired at GM in 2010 by former CEO Ed Whitacre, his one-time boss at AT&T, saw a great opportunity in managing the messaging of the much-maligned automaker, even just after it dropped product lines and restructured.
"It was a big move physically from San Antonio to Detroit, but for anyone who does the work we do in communications, the opportunity to work at this company at this point in history is irresistible," he says. "When I first got to GM and met the team, I thought, 'This is the Super Bowl of communications.' There is a lot of attention, a lot of moving parts, a lot of issues to manage, and also great opportunities to explain."
If working at GM is the Super Bowl of communications, then it's fair to say the automaker fought its way through a few come-back seasons to get to the big game.
Nearly four years ago, GM and Detroit rival Chrysler pleaded with Congress to save their companies. In doing so, the chief executives of the "Big Three" automakers infamously flew to Washington on private jets to make their case to lawmakers, creating a consumer backlash.
However, in the three-plus years since, the carmakers have clawed back to relative financial health. In early 2012, each of the "Big Three" was profitable for the first time since 2004. GM reported a record $7.6 billion profit. Yet that sooner-than-expected re- turn to prosperity reignited the larger public debate about whether taxpayers needed to bail out the automakers in the first place.
For Bingol and his staff, helping the company talk about its recovered financial health, its new product lines, and its smaller fleet of cars is one of the most highly scrutinized roles in the industry.
"There is so much pressure on this company and this industry," explains Bingol. "Everything you do is held up, analyzed, and scrutinized, which is a blessing and a curse. Generally the opportunity to generate really good coverage is always there, but you have to be on top of your game all the time or you risk coverage going the other way. It's a challenge, but it's also exciting."
VP, communications, GM
SVP, corporate communications, AT&T
VP, SBC Communications
Various roles for Fleishman-Hillard
The responsibilities are demanding and require high-level management skills, as well as creativity in telling GM's comeback story to consumers. Bingol's responsibilities also include counseling top executives such as CEO Dan Akerson.
"Selim does a good job of keeping the team focused on managing the company's reputation in Washington and on Wall Street so that we can be successful in the marketplace," says Akerson. "Whether it's coming up with creative ways to promote the Chevy Volt or defending the company from criticism resulting from the bailout, he and his team contribute every day. He has developed the narrative for today's GM, which has positioned the company very well."
Bingol reports directly to Akerson, not to the marketing chief or the COO, which he believes helps the team better counsel executives. Bingol oversees product and technology communications, as well as IR and financial communications, employee and internal messaging, and the company's in-house news bureaus.
"Our social media work is very important to us," he adds. "That team is doing many things. They do a remarkable job of building the company's corporate brand, engineering more positive attention for what we are doing, and being responsive to customers. The news bureau does an excellent job of taking the daily stories we generate and figuring out how to best extend the life of the story beyond the business page."
The media spotlight on GM and its auto industry rivals brightened again this year when the companies' earnings made them full-fledged election-year talking points. The Obama campaign resurrected an op-ed written by presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2008 against the government rescue with the title "Let Detroit go bankrupt." Romney has defended his stance, but the White House dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to a Motor City suburb shortly thereafter to promote President Obama's move to help domestic workers.
However, Bingol, himself a former aide to Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ), stresses the importance of keeping GM above the fray and strictly independent of either political party.
"The campaigns have a life of their own, so mainly what we have tried to do is stay out of it and not get caught up in the day to day and not try to influence one side or the other," he says. "It doesn't help us to achieve the goal of selling vehicles to take one side or the other. We try to keep our heads down and focus on the best products possible and the rest of that stuff will go away in early November."
One area where GM has chosen to engage critics is about its fuel-efficient vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Volt electric car, which has received criticism from the conservative side of the political spectrum because of the government subsidies it has received. GM suspended the Volt product line for five weeks in March because of disappointing sales.
"In broad strokes, we have a terrific lineup of fuel-efficient vehicles. Because three, four, or five years ago, they would not have been associated with GM, we are continuing to put a lot of effort into demonstrating that our fuel-efficient lineup is as good as it can be," says Bingol. "Another priority is to reclaim the brand image for Volt after what it's been through, which is as much a political issue as anything. The sales have started to turn back around and the public perception is strong. We need to continue to press on there."
The Figure of Speech
Although Selim Bingol's responsibilities extend from communications for GM's global products and brands to public policy, he is often praised for his speechwriting ability.
Bingol previously served as a speechwriter for former GM CEO Ed Whitacre when he was chief executive of AT&T before joining him in 2010 at GM. He continued in that role for current GM CEO Dan Akerson.
"Selim is quick to distill a complex story into persuasive messages," says Akerson. "And he's a terrific writer."
Fleishman-Hillard president and CEO Dave Senay recalls that when given a chance to write for the chairman of SBC in the mid-1990s, Bingol was "able to tell the story clearly and in a very powerful way.
"If writing is a window to the mind," he adds, "then Selim is strong, deep, right, and highly adaptable."
At post-bailout GM, the company ad- dresses consumers and critics with quick reflexes using social media and other Web-based strategies.
While GM's communications team does not "own" the company's social media operations, it often collaborates with the marketing departments that do to ensure it can respond to breaking news events quickly and effectively.
"Marketing has a broad social-media team that is focused on direct interaction with the customer, and on the corporate side, we have social media channels for corporate news events and our overall reputation," says Bingol. "We work closely with the marketing team, and that's a credit to both teams. I really don't see any territorial issues. We're both trying to help each other and it's been a healthy relationship in that regard."
Bingol has had practice working in an industry undergoing significant and rapid changes that at times seems besieged by critics. He served as a corporate communications SVP at AT&T from 2004 through 2007, when the company went through $200 billion in mergers and acquisitions.
"Coming out of telecom as he did and being put into the cauldron of a bankrupt company and all the challenges that entails, remaining calm has been a way for him to rise above the rabble and think, see clearly, and lead," observes Dave Senay, president and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard, who worked with Bingol when the latter served as a senior partner at the agency.
"He is an aggressive and tireless advocate for his company," adds Senay. "He has been in two industries that chew up and spit out anyone who doesn't have the fortitude and constitution of a bull. He applies that in a very aggressive way to protect and promote the companies he represents."